In Madrid, a Car Ban Proves Stronger Than Partisan Politics

A new mayor vowed to bring vehicles back to the city center. The strong citizen backlash suggests that European cities’ car bans are not, in fact, in peril.

Madrid’s new administration might already be regretting its promise to cancel the city center’s car ban.

When the city’s current center-right/right/extreme-right coalition came to power following May 26 elections, one of its first promises was to scrap the laws that had seen almost all private cars disappear from inner Madrid—not just from side streets, but from major roads, too.

As it turns out, the measure isn’t as popular as politicians supposed. Now, after a whirlwind of protest, they’re backpedaling. Madrid City Hall is pausing its plans to repeal the law, and it’s likely they’ll be abandoned for good.

The fight started almost as soon as the election result was announced. As CityLab previously reported, Madrid’s new mayor José Luis Martinez-Alameda announced that repealing the car ban was a priority. Isabel Diaz-Ayuso, the new president of the Madrid region (akin to a state governor), went so far as to declare that late-night traffic jams were part of the city’s identity. When the city actually suspended the fines that enforce the no-car zone, however, the public backlash was swift.

Thousands took to the streets at the end of June to protest the about-face—10,000 people according to the Madrid state government, 60,000 according to organizers—something that has previously never happened so soon in the term of any Madrid mayor. Along with the march came critical coverage in the New York Times—a significant, chastening step for an administration which, regardless of who’s in power, is rarely discussed in much detail outside Spain.

This, along with popular support for it, forced the new administration to make some rather odd, unsubstantiated statements to criticize it. Pablo Casado, the national leader of the right-wing Popular Party, said it had created more pollution, even as data suggested the opposite. Madrid state president Diaz-Ayuso said it “killed the Rastro [Madrid’s flea market] and increased crime”—an account that was promptly contradicted by Rastro market traders, who insisted their trade was strong and healthy, and that Madrid was still a very safe city.

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