Barcelona Needs Swift Action Against Pollution

The capital of Catalunya is suffering from persistent high pollution due to car density and the largest number of motorcycles of any European city. City administrators, while acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, have been unwilling to take any action that would upset drivers.

This week I was pleasantly surprised to see a new campaign on the Barcelona City Council website showing the city’s big pollution problem and laying out its main causes and consequences.

Source: Barcelona City Website

Barcelona is not alone. Just last week Madrid, for the first time ever, implemented its pollution protocol level 3, which means that half of the cars were banned from entering the city center (inside the M-30 beltway). Level 2 (banning curbside parking) had been implemented several times last year, as the capital of Spain continuously breaks the EU limits on particulate matter (PM) and Nitrogen Oxide (NO2).

Barcelona City Council’s new information campaign shows that Barcelona is one of the most polluted cities in the EU, surpassing Paris and London, in PM and NO2 levels. The explanation, the campaign argues, is that the density of cars is much higher: London has an average of 2,000 cars/km2, Madrid 3,000 and Barcelona 6,000.

That figure doesn’t include motorcycles, of which there are 273,000 (including scooters) registered, making up about 30% of all motor vehicles.

As other cities have discovered, limiting incoming private motor traffic helps curb pollution, alleviate congestion, and reduce transit times. The possibility of creating a congestion charge in Barcelona, similar to the one in London, has been suggested several times in recent years. But the lack of political will of different administrations has guaranteed that those proposals never go further than the paper they’re printed on.

The situation has reached a critical point, however, and lack of action is no longer an option. If traffic restrictions are not implemented and pollution is allowed to remain at current levels, impacting the health of city residents, this deliberate inaction will fall just short of criminal.

Last year, Barcelona government published a report that pollution causes over 3,500 premature deaths. A report the previous year had a similar figure.

How many deaths does it take to declare the situation a public emergency?

There is one bit of good news. A recent poll in Barcelona found that 72 percent of Barcelona residents would agree to traffic restrictions in order to reduce pollution in the city. The respondents, however, would only agree to limitations during high-pollution episodes.

Parking policies could help. As previously reported on this website, Barcelona has over 70,000 non-regulated parking spaces, an open invitation for more cars to enter the city every day. If those free spaces were regulated, it could reduce the number of cars by more than 10 percent, according to the PMU.

Another big impact could be attained by getting motorcycles off the sidewalks. Motorcycles contribute to more than 40% of the pollution in the city, and the fact that they can park basically anywhere free of charge means that sales of motos have been going up by the thousands, especially during the financial crisis.

Unfortunately, the same poll shows that over 80 percent of residents are against any changes in parking policies or raising prices in regulated curbside parking in the city.

The full implementation of the Barcelona Urban Mobility Plan (PMU) — designed to reduce traffic by deploying superblocks, opening streets to pedestrians, increasing bike lanes — would provide a significant reduction in motor traffic. The plan, however, has been delayed several times, and the current administration has scaled back the implementation to just a handful of superblocks in the next two years.

Last year, I had several conversations with city officials, who told me about important changes in parking policies and the implementation of the superblocks. While at the beginning of the year they had big plans for a quick implementation of those policies, the reality a year later is quite different.

While the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has been closing roads and plans to ban all diesel cars in the city by 2020, Barcelona has been praising Seat, the Spanish brand of the Volkswagen group, for expanding its production in their Martorell factory just outside the city. Obviously, it is more important to keep Seat happy and the jobs they provide than protecting Barcelona residents’ health.

Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau

It looks like Mayor Ada Colau’s administration is not prepared to upset private drivers, the car companies, and motorcycle users, to save thousands of lives every year.

Pollution — both air and noise — is a huge problem that can’t be left unaddressed just because the public is resistant to change. To reduce pollution’s impact we need swift policies that aren’t open to public debate, because most people, especially drivers, don’t like restrictions. It has been demonstrated in many other cities that once traffic curbing policies are implemented and the public experiences the results, they are welcomed by residents and businesses alike.

If Mayor Ada Colau wants to leave a lasting legacy to the people of Barcelona, she should implement the PMU as soon as possible, including regulating all curbside parking, taking motorcycles off the sidewalks, and installing superblocks across the city.

We are now in 2017 and in many countries around the world people make New Year’s resolutions. I hope the Barcelona government has some of its own and that addressing pollution is one of them. I am not optimistic, however. History shows that good intentions fade quickly when political capital is at stake.

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