In 1999, a small town in northwest Spain did something unthinkable in today’s world – they banned all cars except for the absolutely essential ones from its town center. Almost 20 years later, the experiment is ongoing and most in town call it a tremendous success. How did this happen? Let’s go back to the beginning.
Pontevedre, Spain is a small medieval town near the coast. It is part of an extended section of the Camino de Santiago — The Way — a famous medieval pilgrim route that thousands of people still walk today. The town center dates back to the Middle Ages and looks a lot like other medieval cities in Europe. What makes it different, though, is the complete lack of cars and trucks.
In 1999, a new mayor was elected in Pontevedra. Within a month of his election, Miguel Anxo Fernandez Lores had “pedestrianized” the city’s historic center. That meant an almost total ban on private vehicles, cars, trucks, buses, taxis, everything. It covered all 300K square meters of the city. They went further too. They removed all street parking and closed surface parking lots. They replaced traffic lights with roundabouts. They reduced the speed limit in the areas around the center where cars were still allowed, they built underground parking garages on the edges and they created almost 1,700 free parking spots on the edge of town. If you wanted to drive to town, you could park, likely for free, on the perimeter and walk into the center. There were a few exceptions built into the ban, for example, for a wedding, the bride and groom are allowed to arrive and depart by car, but their guests must walk. The ban, argued against by many early on that it was a terrible idea, has led to numerous awards and a general acceptance that it really has been great for the city.
The successes are obvious. Traffic fatalities have gone from 30 in the years 1996-2006 to just three between ’06 and ’09 and since 2009, there has not been even one. CO2 emissions are down nearly 70% and while many town centers in the region have lost population, Pontevedra has gained some 12,000 new residents. The town also weathered Spain’s severe economic crisis better than most areas, in part due to the tourism that the pedestrian-friendly town attracts.
It’s pretty unreasonable to expect the same results in other places, many cities are too big and too dependent on modern transportation, but could this be a model for smaller towns with walkable town centers across the US and Europe? We’re not sure but even as car people, we’re aren’t sure this is a terrible idea either. We kind of like it. As long as we can jump in our cars and careen around the countryside on the weekend.