Madrid's drivers ignore City Hall pleas to use public transport

Rival challenges Madrid mayor Gallardón to pollution debate

Madrid City Hall recommendations that drivers should try to leave their cars at home and use public transport to lower pollution levels fell on deaf ears on Tuesday as citizens elected to take their vehicles as normal. Air quality in the city remained the same as on Monday at the same time.

A rare spell of long-lasting high pressure has been affecting the peninsula for several days, preventing the dispersal of traffic pollution. City Hall on Monday afternoon began posting warnings on information panels around Madrid's M-30 beltway announcing "predicted high pollution" and advising drivers to "use public transport."

But the DGT, the organization responsible for Spain's highways, and City Hall both confirmed that levels of traffic on Tuesday were the same as the previous day. The warnings are set to remain in place on the M-30, which is used by 180,000 drivers each day, "until further notice," said a City Hall spokesperson for traffic.

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For now pollution levels have not yet exceeded the limit beyond which City Hall is required to alert citizens to take additional measures and Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón was at pains on Tuesday to point out that he has requested a greater use of public transport precisely "to avoid reaching a level that would force us to take drastic measures."

Pollution is becoming a significant political issue in Madrid, threatening to be one of the most debated topics in the upcoming local elections. Socialist mayoral candidate Jaime Lissavetzky, who spent the weekend carrying an issue of the Financial Times under his arm which on Saturday featured a front-page story attacking Gallardón's anti-pollution claims, on Monday challenged the mayor to "an environmental debate wherever you want, whenever you want, however you want."

Gallardón, of the Popular Party, announced in 2006 that he would prevent the entry of the most polluting cars into the city from 2008, which City Hall later put back two years. After it wasn't applied in 2010, Gallardón said in an interview that he would restrict traffic in his next term of office.

The law says nitrogen dioxide should not exceed levels of 200 micrograms per cubic meter more than 18 hours a year, but some city measuring stations have already passed that less than a month and a half into 2011.

In addition, a report presented by the environmental group Ecologists in Action on Tuesday revealed that, like Madrid, the neighboring municipalities of Leganés and Coslada also surpass legal pollution limits established by the European Union. The NGO criticized City Hall, saying advice and requests were not enough and that it was seriously neglecting "its obligation to guarantee Madrid's citizens the ability to breathe healthy air."

In Barcelona, meanwhile, pollution levels caused by the high pressure have led to Artur Mas' Catalan regional government having to postpone its electoral promise to lift the 80 km/h speed limit on city approach roads until the weather changes.

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