Taking Pontevedra's car-free lead
Every year, thousands of people are killed in road-related accidents in cities across Europe. But not in Pontevedra. Over the past two decades, vehicle accidents have claimed fewer than a dozen lives in the northwestern Spanish city of 85,000 residents; the last recorded death was in 2011, when an 81-year-old man was run over by a delivery van. How so? Well, Pontevedra banned cars from most of the city in 1999.
“We decided to redesign the city for people instead of cars and we’ve been reaping the rewards ever since,” says the city’s mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, who came to office with plans for a car-free city more than 20 years ago. “Not only have we not had a single road-related death in over a decade, but air pollution has been reduced by 67 percent and our overall quality of life in the city has dramatically improved.” Some 15,000 people have moved to the city since it became car-free, he adds.
Other cities are considering or already implementing measures to kick out cars as a way to reduce air pollution and congestion. During the pandemic, cities such as London, Paris and Brussels built new bike path networks and made more space for pedestrians. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of European cities limiting access to certain types of polluting traffic increased by 40 percent, according to the Clean Cities Campaign. And in 2020, more than 960 EU cities participated in International Car-Free Day, with dozens later instituting policies banning cars from city centres once a month.
Still, in a majority of these places, cars are deeply ingrained in city life — and in many cases, including in Brussels, huge parts of the city were specifically designed with the car in mind. Undoing that type of urban planning is a challenge, but Fernández Lores insists it doesn’t have to be an election-losing proposition. He ought to know, he was re-elected for a sixth time in 2019. “Adopting these kind of measures initially requires political courage. But fear of losing elections shouldn’t condition the actions that responsible politicians take, and it looks like designing the city for people can actually be quite good at the electoral level.”
A stop-off point on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route located between the Galician port city of Vigo and the regional capital of Santiago, Pontevedra has always been a bustling commercial hub in northwestern Spain. By the late 1990s, an average of 80,000 cars traversed the city centre each day, along with an average of 140 registered road-related accidents with serious injuries each year.
“This city was basically a giant warehouse for cars, full of private vehicles that filled our public space, generated noise and emissions, and stopped our citizens — especially children and the elderly — from having true autonomy in the place in which they lived,” says Fernández Lores, who won Pontevedra’s 1999 mayoral campaign promising to reclaim the streets.
The changes he introduced transformed Pontevedra. The city’s 30,000-square-metre historic core was pedestrianised and all on-street parking spaces eliminated. Through-traffic was redirected to avoid the centre altogether and commuters into the city were directed to carparks located on the periphery.
While cars could still come into the centre to make drop-offs or pickups, they were subject to a 30km/hour speed limit and caps on how long they could remain stationary. It took time to get locals onboard, the mayor recalls. “It’s normal to fear changes, especially during the first two years of a project, when the transformation is still underway and people can’t fully see the final benefits.”
The local business community in particular was divided, with some fearing that blocking access for cars would discourage customers from shopping in the city. “Some people got it immediately: I had a bookseller tell me he backed pedestrianisation because in all his years in business he had never had a car come into his shop to buy a book!" the mayor says, laughing. “But to get something like this done you have to talk to everyone, listen to their concerns and work at explaining the positives.”
Fernández Lores says he took to invoking the figure of billionaire Amancio Ortega, the Galician owner of the Zara clothing chain, a revered figure in the region. “I pointed out that Zara stores are usually found on pedestrianised shopping streets, not four-lane ring roads,” he notes. “I think many naysayers reconsidered their position when I asked them if they thought they knew more about business than Amancio Ortega.”
Initial opposition disappeared once local shops saw business increase after pedestrianisation. “Instead of driving out to malls on the periphery, people shop in the city centre: The city is our mall.”
Fernández Lores insists he’s not anti-car, rather that motor vehicles largely belong outside cities. Instead, he advocates for urban policies that favour more local living in which commutes can be made on foot or by bike. “The city should not be seen as a road, but as a space for coexistence,” he says.
More than two decades after Pontevedra ditched cars, other cities are beginning to institute similar measures. For a growing number of mayors, cars have become “the villains of the story”, says Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign. She expects such measures will become increasingly popular because they also make cities more attractive and improve quality of life.
In notoriously car-choked Brussels, a new mobility plan — dubbed Good Move — aims to reduce overall car traffic by 24 percent by the end of the decade. The city is set to follow Pontevedra: through-traffic will be redirected onto the small ring road; in some parts of the city, only locals will be allowed to drive in and out; and the number of parking spots in the city — which currently outnumber its residents — will be reduced.
“If you look at the numbers, only 20–25 percent of the people who live or come to work here use cars, but the impact of the car on the city is incredible nonetheless,” says Bart Dhondt, councillor for mobility in the city of Brussels. “With Good Move we’re creating small pedestrian zones, car-free zones, areas where car access is limited, always with the objective of giving more space to people.”
Unsurprisingly, fears slashing car access will affect business and reduce personal convenience remain. Much of the pushback has come from shop owners worried about a loss of revenue, reports Dhondt. His team has doubled down on its communication with the business community to get them on board, he says. “I’ve gone so far as to give people my personal number so they can reach out with concerns, and we’ve listened and altered the parts of the plan when people have shown us other ways to achieve the same objective on a particular street,” he adds. “We’ll keep listening because we have to be pragmatic and honest enough to address side effects that might arise.”
But ultimately, the trend is clear, Dhont says: EU cities are all moving in the same direction — toward more sustainable urban landscapes with fewer cars. “In Brussels, that means safer streets with cleaner air for us, for our kids. People don’t want to live in cities designed for cars: They want cities for people.”