Thousands protest Madrid’s pollution about-turn

Spanish capital's car ban suspended despite air quality fears

Thousands of people demonstrated today in Madrid to demand the continuation of the car restriction scheme. EPA
Thousands of people demonstrated today in Madrid to demand the continuation of the car restriction scheme. EPA

Thousands of marchers took to the streets of Madrid to protest against a decision to lift a ban from Monday on polluting cars driving into the centre of the capital.

The eight-month system to ban most petrol and diesel cars has been suspended by an incoming conservative administration which said the green project was too inconvenient for people who lived there.

The thousands who took to the streets on Saturday disagreed, with many carrying banners saying “Fewer cars, better air” and “The new city hall seriously harms your health” during the city centre march in 40C heat.

Madrid’s traffic-scheme was just one of those introduced by Europe’s major cities to push back against the effects from pollution and to ease traffic-clogged streets.

The Spanish capital’s scheme went further than schemes introduced in Milan, London, Paris and Stockholm – where drivers can pay a charge to enter central areas – by banning most cars. Drivers were fined 90 euros (Dh366) for breaching a five square kilometre zone.

The scheme – known as Madrid Central – had been welcomed by environmentalists for reducing pollution to a ten-year low but was reversed by José Luis Martínez-Almeida, the incoming mayor from the conservative People’s Party.

The pledge had been a central feature of his election campaign, claiming that it had done nothing to ease pollution and caused problems for locals.

Since taking power, the administration has toned down its plans saying it wanted to reform a system that it said had mistakenly handed out fines. The system will be suspended from Monday for three months while officials carry out an audit.

The policy had been introduced by the former left-wing mayor and was aimed at keeping Madrid in line with European Union clean air rules that the city had violated since 2010.

The scheme was one of the reasons that persuaded the EU not to take Spain to court last year over poor air quality like it did with France, Germany and the UK.

An environmental group, Ecologists in Action, said its test showed that results from 14 of 24 testing stations showed the lowest levels of pollution for a decade.

Beatriz Navarro, a 44-year-old university biochemistry professor who took part in the march, said the system had been working well.

“It's a small seed... among everything that has to be done to slow down climate change,” she said.

The Madrid scheme is believed to the first European project to be reversed – following similar rollbacks in the United States where President Donald Trump is well-known as climate change sceptic.

Despite initial opposition from traders and some locals, most of the European car reduction schemes have been declared successes and some have expanded their reach.

London introduced a congestion charge in 2003 with a further emissions standard added this year. It would see a driver of an older, dirtier car pay £24 (Dh109) a day to drive into the centre of the capital.

In Ghent, Belgium, a 35-hectare area was declared car free and the city authorities promoted public transport and cycling as alternative modes of transport.

“As far as I know at the European level there's no precedent in ending a car traffic restriction,” said Lara Lazaro, researcher of the Real Instituto Elcano.

Published: June 30, 2019 03:50 PM

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