Pontevedra, a pedestrian’s paradise!

Accomplish • Pulse #4 • 6 min
By Julien Thèves

Almost all of this Spanish town, home to a population of 83,000, has been made a car-free zone. Pedestrians have reclaimed the streets and quality of life is improving by the day. What lies behind the scheme’s success? Explanations by Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, mayor of Pontevedra.

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Viewpoints from Pontevedres

3 min

The Galician town of Pontevedra in northwest Spain is known for its picturesque mediaeval centre with a maze of narrow streets lined with café terraces — but it’s not always been that way. In the late 1990s, the town was in decline, overshadowed by its nearby rival, Vigo. Hemmed in by a coastal valley, Pontevedra was choking from air pollution, mainly from cars, and quality of life for local residents, known as ‘pontevedréses’, was being eroded.
Cars had literally taken over the streets. Up to 52,000 cars passed through the town in a day — almost as many as the people living there! While some just drove through, many others would go around in circles trying to find a parking spot — taking an average of 18 minutes to do so. The result was endless traffic jams, double parking and pedestrians forced to weave their way through dense and chaotic traffic. Inevitably, traffic accidents were commonplace (30 fatal accidents between 1996 and 2006). But this was all set to change. In 1999 Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, a town councillor, was elected mayor and quickly resolved to tackle the problem. “The town council had spent ten years thinking about how to transform Pontevedra. We consulted a lot of publications by urban development experts. My aim was to give residents a better place to live. I’m not against cars; I love travelling by car, especially on the motorway! But I wanted to create a more people-friendly town centre. For me, this was key. By taking back the public space for pedestrians, we’d be able to curb air pollution, revitalise the Lerez River, which had become a cesspool, and generally improve quality of life for everyone,” says Lores, who’s been re-elected mayor ever since.

TRANSFORMATION OF A TOWN

Within a month of Lores’s election in 1999, cars had been banned from the historic district and 300,000 m2 of the Old Town had been pedestrianised, with others soon to follow. Pavements were removed to level the streets and street parking, and surface car parks were replaced by underground facilities with 4,000 spaces for residents or visitors who had no choice but to drive into town, for example when moving home or attending a medical appointment. “We could have opted for partial pedestrianisation, but we wanted to go further and really discourage people from using their cars,” explains the mayor. “There was some opposition, of course. Retailers were worried about losing customers and local residents were exasperated by disruption from the roadworks, but today no one would dream of going back to the old system. Smaller stores have even seen an increase in customers. Children can play safely outside, senior citizens or people with reduced mobility now enjoy an environment that’s much better suited to their needs, and our streets are perfect for a stroll!” Within no time, the rundown town centre had been renovated and restored to its former glory, boasting clean, well-lit streets. Delivery vehicles, which are authorised to enter the car-free zone four hours a day in the morning get around easily. The speed limit is 30km/h across the town — down to 20km/h in some parts, “where we’d like to lower it to 10km/h,” adds the mayor. “Cars never get above 30km/h on average in cities, if you include stops at traffic lights. In Pontevedra, we’ve replaced traffic lights with roundabouts, which improve the flow of remaining traffic.”
Today, the almost three-quarters of the town is car free. Only 9% of vehicles from across the urban area come into the centre, compared with 83% in 1999. However, there isn’t a complete ban on traffic in the pedestrian area, which now covers 1.3 million m2, but surface parking is limited to 15 minutes. Drivers caught exceeding the limit face a hefty fine of up to €200! Free parking is available on the outskirts (2,500 spaces) and the centre is within easy walking distance. And that’s the really great part, because besides reducing pollution and creating a more people-friendly town, encouraging people to walk more is Pontevedra’s most distinguishing feature.

PEDESTRIAN POWER

There is no public transport in the town centre. The last remaining circular bus service was withdrawn due to a lack of passengers. The only services available run to neighbouring towns and outlying districts, such as the town hospital and Monteporreiro. So, people walk instead! What’s more, the authorities have launched a mobile app to help people get around. MetroMinuto provides a metro-style map of Pontevedra showing typical walking times. “The town covers an area measuring 2km by 3km, so it’s relatively small. This means that if you walk at a speed of 5km/h, you reach your destination in no time.”
The response has been tremendous. “At first, some people grumbled about not being able to park just outside their office. Now, they thank me for the short walk they get to enjoy every day,” says Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores. That’s no doubt thanks to the MetroMinuto app’s ‘calories burned’ feature! Today, 72% of trips are done on foot or by bicycle. 90% of people walk to the centre to do their shopping (planning permission is withheld for grocery superstores across the town) and 80% of children walk to school. “It’s a small town so not many people feel the need to cycle, but cycling is nevertheless high on our agenda. Motor vehicles, however, are the least of our priorities,” says the mayor emphatically. And as a trained doctor, he knows exactly how important walking is to good health: people should aim for between 7,000 and 10,000 steps every day, according to WHO recommendations.
Of course, when it rains it’s not so pleasant, but the mayor is quick to brush that concern aside: “That’s what umbrellas are for! Before, the pavements were too narrow and there wasn’t enough room for two people holding umbrellas to get by. Now, pedestrians have got all the space they need, and walking couldn’t be easier.” Nevertheless, complaints are occasionally heard from drivers about traffic jams in the few streets where vehicles are allowed.

Road traffic has been reduced by :
• 97% in the Old Town
• 77% in the urban centre
• 53% in the town as a whole
CO2 emissions per capita have been halved.

The car-free policy has provided plenty more positive benefits. The town hasn’t reported a single fatal road accident since 2011. Overall quality of life has also improved: fewer cars means less noise and cleaner air (CO2 emissions are 67% lower than they were 20 years ago). The town centre is full of life again by day and by night. “Pontevedra has been revitalised and became more accessible to families. It’s one of the few towns in Galicia to experience population growth,” says the mayor proudly. “What’s more, everyone’s talking about us! A steady flow of journalists come to admire our successful pedestrianisation scheme.” As well as an enthusiastic response from the media, the town has won several international awards, including a European Intermodes prize, a UN Habitat Award and a New York Center for Active Design Excellence award. Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores is proud of what he’s achieved: “Every day, people stop me in the street to talk about how good our town looks and what a great place it is to live. Plus, we’ve managed to transform Pontevedra without bleeding the town’s budget dry. It’s a matter of political will.”


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