Madrid traffic levels rise as City Hall suspends fines for entering low-emission zone

The new Popular Party mayor, who is going to take three months to decide what to do about his predecessor’s flagship program, yesterday poked fun at Greenpeace protestors opposed to the move

A traffic jam on Gran Vía on Monday.
A traffic jam on Gran Vía on Monday.JULIÁN ROJAS

Traffic in Madrid typically goes down on July 1, when a lot of the city’s inhabitants go off on their summer vacations. But this year, the opposite has happened.

On Monday, the new conservative administration headed by Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), suspended fines for polluting vehicles entering in low-emission areas of downtown Madrid.

Pollution is soaring. We’ve had more than 40 micrograms per cubic meter, which is the legal limit

Juan Bárcena, Ecologistas en Acción

Traffic figures show that the number of vehicles rose across the city between 7am and 10am, as did the intensity of traffic jams. Despite the numbers, council officials claimed that there was “no substantial increase in traffic.”

What’s more, the air-quality measurement station in Plaza del Carmen, a square located in the city center, showed NO2 levels above the permitted threshold.

“Pollution is soaring,” said Juan Bárcena, the spokesperson for the green group Ecologistas en Acción. “We’ve had more than 40 micrograms per cubic meter, which is the legal limit. That practically hadn’t happened at all in the last quarter.”

Police clear environmental protestors in Madrid on Monday.
Police clear environmental protestors in Madrid on Monday.

Three months

The mayor has described the ban reversal as temporary while his team analyzes what to do about Madrid Central, an initiative that was introduced seven months ago by his predecessor, the leftist former judge Manuela Carmena, of the Más Madrid party.

“We have given ourselves some time to evaluate the consequences of Madrid Central and evaluate what model should be applied in an effective manner to fight for sustainable mobility and against pollution, while guaranteeing citizen mobility and avoid, as much as possible, the losses suffered by retailers,” said the new mayor.

But the three-month moratorium on fines for vehicles that enter the low-emission zone has met with opposition from green groups and concerned citizens. On Monday, Greenpeace protestors cut off a main artery, Alcalá street, to demonstrate against the move.

I must admit that I envy how much free time they have to carry out these sorts of actions

Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, speaking about Greenpeace protestors

The 17 activists demanded to speak with the mayor, but they were cleared by the police without a chance to see him. Martínez-Almeida later joked that through its protest, Greenpeace had created more traffic problems, “causing more pollution.”

“I must admit that I envy how much free time they have to carry out these sorts of actions,” said Martínez-Almeida, who has been in power for two weeks in coalition with Ciudadanos and with support from the far-right Vox party. “But since the rest of us have to work, since we have to deal with the issues that affect citizens, we don’t have the time to sit around in chains.”

Last Saturday, thousands of citizens marched in the city in support of Madrid Central. The deputy mayor, Begoña Villacís of Ciudadanos, said that the street protests are a result of “a hoax” that’s being circulated by the leftist Podemos regarding the government’s alleged plans to revoke the air-quality program.

“The system that was approved by the previous governing team was deficient, and forced them to cancel more than 6,000 fines,” she said. “The PP-Ciudadanos program does not talk about reverting it, but about transforming it.”

But the PP’s separate deal with Vox talks about “ending the policy of prohibitions and restrictions” and “restoring free circulation on structural roads.” And on May 26, the day of the local elections that saw Manuela Carmena take most votes but fall short of a majority, paving the way for the current right-wing coalition, the general secretary of Vox, Javier Ortega-Smith, told the press: “From tomorrow, Madrid Central is over.”

Restrictions for private vehicles have been in place in Madrid’s city center for years under programs introduced by former PP administrations, but they were recently expanded through Madrid Central to include the Gran Vía area. Between 2004 and 2015, the PP created resident priority zones in the central Lavapiés, Huertas, Ópera and Embajadores neighborhoods.

English version by Susana Urra.

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