Pontevedra was a city people were leaving because the car was choking the life out of its medieval centre.
Determined to save the city from fumes, congestion and deaths from traffic accidents, the mayor of this city in northwestern Spain brought in a radical plan to hand it back to pedestrians.
Within a month of coming to power in 1999, Miguel Anxo Fernandez Lores pedestrianised all 300,000 square metres of the city centre.
“Before you could not hear anyone speak, now you can,” Lores told Euronews.
“We had between 80,000 and 150,000 cars coming in every day to a city of 80,000 people, about triple the density of Madrid or London. It was impossible to drive around or walk. There were permanent jams. People wanted to leave because it was so blocked up.”
Pontevedra decided to cut the number of cars which could enter so only “essential vehicles” were allowed into the centre.
Cars were no longer allowed to cross the city to go somewhere else. Street parking ended because a study showed that most congestion was caused by people hunting for a parking place.
All surface car parks were closed in the city centre and underground ones were opened outside the city centre with 1,686 free places. Traffic lights were replaced by roundabouts and a car-free zone was extended. The speed limit was cut to 30kph or even 10kph in inner-city zones.
Pontevedra won awards from the United Nations and the European Union for the way it has transformed the city.
“There have not been any fatal accidents for 11 years. Pollution has been reduced to half a tonne per person per year. And the quality of life has gone up tremendously,” Lores said.
Similar schemes have been adopted in Oviedo, San Sebastian and Logroño.
The Spanish government hopes to repeat the success of Pontevedra elsewhere by introducing low emission zones in 147 cities by next year to restrict pollution, congestion and noise.
An Environment ministry spokesman said: “We have passed a law which compels city councils to create low emission zones in city centres but how this is done is up to individual authorities.”
Ecologists in Action, a conservation group, applauded this measure, which has received widespread public support in Spain, but said they were disappointed by the slow response by city councils.
Under Spain’s 2021 Climate Change Law, cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, apart from Madrid and Barcelona, must draw up plans for these zones. Spain’s two largest cities have already brought in schemes to restrict gas-guzzling cars.
Cars will be classified according to how much they contaminate the atmosphere. Those classified as ECO or 0 are electric or hybrid cars. Drivers will be allowed to park where they want in low-emission zones.
Cars classified as C include all those which are not hybrid, micro fuel, electric and in the case of petrol cars were registered before 2006 or with diesel before 2015. This makes up the largest group of vehicles in Spain.
Others classed as B are the oldest petrol cars registered before 2001 which may incur the heaviest fines to enter low emission zones or be banned.
Pamplona, the northern Spanish city best known for its world-famous bull-running festival, is planning to bring a low emission zone in its narrow-cobbled streets by the end of 2023.
Any polluting cars without an appropriate badge can be fined up to €200 but there is no charge to enter the zone.
The car is still king in most Spanish cities, claim conservationists, but most Spaniards want this rule to end.
A poll for eldiario.es, a left-leaning news website, published on 20 September found that 70% of Spaniards supported limiting energy use, restricting the use of cars in cities and increasing taxes for activities which cause the most contamination.
Another survey for the Clean Cities Campaign, which is allied to Ecologists in Action, published on 22 September found that 62% of residents in Barcelona, Paris, London, Brussels and Warsaw supported banning cars from cities on some days of the week to reduce dependence on oil.
If the will to remove cars from cities is there, why are politicians dragging their heels?
“We support the Spanish government’s measure to bring in low emission zones in cities. However, we are disappointed by the slow response by city councils,” Carmen Duce, of Ecologists in Action, told Euronews.
“In some cases, there is also a small but powerful lobby which has managed to get measures to restrict the use of cars overturned. Elsewhere, some politicians may not want to bring in radical measures before local elections next May.”
However, the tide may be turning as the bicycle is on the rise.
In Barcelona, a crocodile of small bikes snakes its way precariously through the rush hour traffic one day per week, escorted by a Praetorian guard of parents.
This is the bicibus – the bicycle bus – of tiny children making their way to school as cars and lorries stop to let them go by.
A police escort makes sure they reach school without any mishaps.
Bicibus was the brainchild of parents in one part of the city who believed their children should have the chance to cycle to school safely without being intimidated by rush hour traffic. After one started a year ago, 11 more have sprung up across the city and the campaign has gone international.
Parents in Glasgow, New York and San Francisco have been in touch with the Spanish campaigners to create their own versions of the bicycle taxi.
“There has been a boom in these bicibus schemes and we have had interest from around the world,” Rosa Suriñach, a bicibus organiser, told Euronews.
“The council is supportive but there has only been changes locally. There is no one integral scheme for Barcelona to make the city more cycle friendly.”
A spokesman for Barcelona city council said: “The authority supports the bicibus initiative and the use of bicycles in general through the use of bike lanes in the city.”