Spanish city offers a road map for a future with far fewer cars

A couple with an umbrella walks across the wet flagstones of a public square in Pontevedra, Spain.
A couple walks through a car-free square last week in Pontevedra, Spain. (José Colón for Yahoo News)

PONTEVEDRA, Spain — By the summer of 1999, the historic district of this picturesque northwestern city of 85,000 residents was clogged with traffic, its air filled with exhaust fumes and the cacophony of automobiles.

“It was a continuous traffic jam, and downright hellish,” César Mosquera, a university mathematics professor and city councilman in charge of urban planning, told Yahoo News.

Between 80,000 and 150,000 vehicles entered the 1.8-square-mile city center each day, resulting in traffic density triple that of Madrid, Spain’s largest city, even though its population is roughly only a 40th of the size. As cars ate up more space, bad air and nonstop honking pushed citizens from the shrinking public squares, and drug addicts moved into them, Daniel Macenlle, the city’s director general of Citizen Protection, told Yahoo News. Crime rates soared, he said, and the once-vibrant city had become a place “where people were afraid to go out.”

César Mosquera, a math professor and city councilman in charge of urban planning in Pontevedra.
César Mosquera, a math professor and city councilman in charge of urban planning in Pontevedra. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

But in July of 1999, a new mayor and new City Council came on board ready to implement a radical new idea aimed at revitalizing Pontevedra: dramatically restricting automobile access to its central district and reclaiming public space for the citizenry. That fall, the Council began rolling out its plan, passing ordinances that eradicated on-street parking, reduced the speed limit — first to 18 mph, then to 6 mph — and erected traffic barriers that routed vehicles onto one-way streets.

Thanks to those measures, traffic in the city center dropped by 97%, according to Pontevedra’s City Council, and carbon dioxide levels fell by 67%. Once the site of hundreds of serious crashes and three car-related deaths a year on average, the downtown has not had a single traffic fatality since 2011. Apart from the sounds of children playing, musicians strumming guitars and spirited conversations between locals, the pedestrian-filled city center is nearly silent.

A black-and-white image, left, shows a street packed with cars and delivery vehicles, with a bicyclist weaving through them; on the right, a few pedestrians walk down a city street past a Romanesque church in brick.
Left, downtown Pontevedra crammed with cars. Right, the scene now that cars have been banned. (José Colón for Yahoo News)

“Now the streets are for the people, not the car,” Macenlle said, strolling past 16th century stone buildings with orange-tiled roofs in the historic quarter.

To handle the displaced vehicles, the city opened free parking lots outside the central district. Cars can still freely enter and park for deliveries and pickups, but 15-minute limits are strictly enforced. Those who park longer face tickets of 200 euros ($212) and towing, which requires immediate payments of 120 euros ($128), but there are very few infractions, said Macenlle, who noted that most locals applaud the move to create more public spaces in the compact city center, the home of nearly three-quarters of Pontevedra's population.

A small police vehicle turns past a pedestrian in Pontevedra's city center.
Police patrol the streets in Pontevedra. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Cities from Paris to Bangkok, London to Denver are now establishing their own programs to restrict traffic, to mitigate air pollution and the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Meanwhile, Pontevedra can provide them a road map to a future less beholden to cars.

As the car-reduction plan was being crafted in Pontevedra, council members, business leaders and the public debated the contentious question of how exactly much the city could restrict traffic without killing off its downtown economy.

Quickly, however, it became apparent that having fewer cars on the street was drawing people to the city center, not pushing them away.

Pedestrians circulate in Pontevedra's historic center.
The historic center of Pontevedra. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Mosquera pointed out that the number of cars needed to keep the city functioning is “really very little.” Pedestrian zones replaced spaces once dominated by automobiles, local businesses flourished, and soon Pontevedra was regularly receiving planning awards, including one in 2015 for smart urban management from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Center for Active Design.

In a bright green conference room in the city hall, which overlooks Pontevedra’s main shopping zone, Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, formerly a family doctor, pointed to a 1999 photo of a traffic-choked street that bordered one of the city’s main squares, Plaza España. “All the traffic from various streets converged there — with 26,000 vehicles a day passing that square,” he said. “Now there are 800 vehicles a day — but they move slowly, don’t bother people, and coexist with the uses of public space.” With about one car crawling past every two minutes, it scarcely even counts as traffic, he added.

The mayor, wearing a pink jacket and blue shirt, points to a diagram in a city brochure in English in a section on what it calls Traffic Calming Measures.
Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores points to a traffic map at a meeting with colleagues. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

A local hero to many, Lores, hellbent on minimizing traffic and revitalizing public spaces, has been reelected five times. Initially, his mission didn’t sit well with many residents, some of whom accused him of being too idealistic, going overboard and interfering with the city’s economy by strangling traffic. Other government officials, at the provincial level all the way up to the national government in Madrid, were also skeptical, but Lores stuck to his guns.

“Cities are not [supposed to be] car warehouses. Cities are spaces for people to live together, and that is the absolute priority,” Lores told Yahoo News, adding, “Some traffic is necessary for the city to function. What is not desirable is having cars circulating in the city without need.”

Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores leans over a conference table with a computer screen and some city brochures, holding a cellphone, as Daniel Macenlle and a visitor look on.
Lores speaks with Daniel Macenlle, the city’s director general of Citizen Protection, while a visitor looks on. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

The right-wing Popular Party, which also sits on Pontevedra’s City Council, often criticizes Lores’s plans, including for blocking part of an avenue last year. “It’s increasingly difficult to access Pontevedra,” a party spokesman, Rafa Domínguez, lamented in February, adding that the traffic diversion “has killed business in the street.” Hoping to demand a reversal, the party launched an online petition, but it failed to achieve its 2,500-signature goal.

On a sunny terrace where locals sat eating calamari and bacalao, Panama-born Michele Cingolana, who owns two restaurants in Pontevedra, extolled the benefits of life there. “I sold my car,” he said. “I don’t need it here. I can get everywhere on foot.” He’s one of the 15,000 people who have moved to the city since what Macenlle calls “traffic-calming” measures were initiated in 1999. The goal, said Macenlle, was to get rid of unneeded “parasitic” traffic that was using Pontevedra as a shortcut to somewhere else, as well as cars circling for parking spots.

Reflected in a shop window in Pontevedra, the so-called Cross of the Fallen appears in the far distance.
Down an empty city street in Pontevedra, a view of the so-called Cross of the Fallen appears, reflected in a shop window. (José Colón for Yahoo News)

While you do see some cars parked briefly in the 74-acre historic center, most are now parked across the river in the free lots. Commuters simply walk across a bridge into the city, and most destinations in the city’s core can be reached on foot in 15 minutes or less. A few hundred motorists drive into the city center to park underground in pay lots.

Small pleasure boats are moored in a row on the Ria de Pontevedra, with an elevated freeway and parking lot in the distance.
The Ria de Pontevedra, with the city parking lot in the distance. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Entering the city center with a vehicle requires patience, however. Cars aren’t allowed to move faster than pedestrians and they are restricted to a mazelike route of narrow one-way streets bordered by wide sidewalks. Wherever they go, pedestrians have the right of way, even if they stop in front of a car to converse with friends. In Pontevedra, it’s said that the only time you hear a honking horn is when an out-of-towner is behind the wheel. In 36 hours, Yahoo News didn’t hear one.

“There’s a real human speed to living in Pontevedra. I think it’s an antidote to everything else that’s going on — the crushing closeness of cars, the speed of cars, the speed of technology,” Sally Higgens, a London-born artist who moved to Pontevedra in 2018, after reading an article in the Guardian about its no-car policy, told Yahoo News. “Here I find people are a bit more present for each other.”

A car slowly makes its way through the pedestrians in the historic center of the city.
A car slowly makes its way through pedestrians in the center of Pontevedra. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Initially, the plans to reclaim the city center were met with skepticism. The regional government looked askance at the idea, as did the national government, according to Lores.

“We did not have any friendly government behind us. Not in Madrid, or in the European Union, or in the Province, or in the Autonomous Community of Galicia,” he said.

Store owners were also worried. “At first they made a lot of complaints” about the plans, said Macenlle. “They were afraid of change.” Now most support the effort, he said. “Their profits increased,” he explained.

Lydie, the owner of the Scandale Bar, sits proudly on a chair in the center of Pontevedra.
Lydie, owner of the Scandale Bar, in the historical center of Pontevedra. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Shifting the power dynamic in the urban landscape from car to pedestrian also meant redesigning the downtown architecture. The city devised new ways of recovering more public spaces, breaking up main thoroughfares and creating more squares, installing more lighting, putting in more benches, trees and playgrounds.

Poles block entry to one part of the city, with apartment builds in the distance.
Some streets have been closed to vehicular traffic. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Before the traffic restrictions went into effect, most residents left in the summer, Mosquera said. Now, most stick around. As a result of the year-round foot traffic, crime is down, he said. “Lots of people on the street is the most powerful crime prevention tool there is,” he said. The birth rate is up too, making Pontevedra the youngest city in Galicia, said Lores.

“The squares in Pontevedra that have the most children are not the ones with a playground, but the squares with a terrace, where the grandfather is having a beer, the kid is playing ball, and people are shopping,” said Lores. It’s an example of social cohesion, he said, “and democracy in the public space — because everyone can use the public space, while always respecting the weakest, the children, the elderly, the people with disabilities.”

A young resident playing ball in an open plaza.
A young resident kicks a ball in a Pontevedra square. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

With officials from cities across the world now turning to him for advice, Lores stresses that each city must find its own model. But he does have some ideas. “The issue of having fewer cars is not achieved with more public transport,” he said, noting that most drivers won’t switch to buses. Even economic measures requiring payments to enter aren’t altogether effective, he said, pointing to London, where entry fees he said have reduced traffic by some 20%. “The people who can pay, will pay — and you’re really just discriminating against those who can’t pay.” The key to reducing traffic, he believes, is preventing unnecessary cars from entering in the first place — by eliminating on-street parking, restricting speed of travel to a crawl, and putting in one-way streets with narrow lanes for cars and wide sidewalks for people, while claiming more public spaces for pedestrians and lighting them well.

“I tell those in other cities to do things along these lines — and not to be afraid,” said Lores. “If you make mistakes, you can fix them. It’s better than being paralyzed by cars. You’ll have better air quality, better quality of life in the city, and you’re fighting climate change. And if you do things right — people will vote for you.”

Pigeons enjoy the empty streets of Pontevedra.
Pigeons enjoy the empty streets of Pontevedra. (José Colon for Yahoo News)