The governance of urban sustainable mobility: the dilemmas of the Madrid metropolitan area

28.10.19. Luis Bouza – Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

The roundtables with experts, decision makers and civil society organised by OpenEUdebate at the Autonomous University in Madrid gave students, researchers and the public a good view on several key dilemmas for the sustainability of European economies but also of the changing nature of policy making in Europe.

Urban mobility is a source of growing attention for decision makers since it accounts for 40% of road transport emissions in the EU but also because mobility presents other trade-offs in the broader context of the sustainability objectives of the EU. The concentration of population in metropolitan areas also creates social and economic dilemmas about urban planning which are also societal lifestyle choices: densely populated urban areas are easier to connect via public transport than suburban developments dependent upon public transportation. However densely populated urban and metropolitan areas also require specific sustainability efforts in relation to social cohesion, ageing and the regeneration of urban tissues.

The representative of the Spanish Ministry of Public Works and Transport presented the Spanish Urban Agenda implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the European Union Urban Agenda. This agenda is not limited to mobility, but addresses several societal challenges experienced by cities such as the extension of dispersed urbanization and the resulting dependence upon private transportation, decrease urban pollution and fight climate change by cutting CO2 emissions and promote more inclusive cities by promoting proximity and cohesion, in which mobility is also essential in sustaining the social fabric of cities. In this sense, the assessment of the Spanish government is that Spain’s traditional Mediterranean urban planning – densely populated areas where population is within easy reach of concentrated local services – is a strong asset which Spanish cities must keep to face the challenges of sustainability.

In this sense the city of Rivas-Vaciamadrid is a good example of the abovementioned pressures metropolitan areas have faced in living up to the challenge. Rivas-Vaciamadrid, laying 15 kms away from Madrid city centre grew from 500 inhabitants in 1982 to a current population of 90.000 following a low density planning which reflects urban inequalities in itself: young middle class families acquired American-style homes at a price for which they could not afford a small apartment in the inner city. This has resulted in a high dependency upon private transportation which the city council is addressing via an EU-awarded Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan which has succeeded in substituting 14% of trips by car by collective transportation and cycling.

The roundtables also showed how urban mobility is becoming controversial in political systems where it was a secondary issue recently, as it is the case in Spain. The Madrid city council applied a policy focused on a low emission area in the inner-city centre between 2017 and 2019, whereas the new city council is loosening controls on private cars access to the city centre albeit aiming to provide incentives for cleaner mobility beyond the city centre. Debates in the roundtables demonstrated that civil society representatives considered that the most important effect of the low emission zone in Madrid – there are broad differences in extension, functions and aims of low emission zones across Europe – was to make the strong bias of transport systems towards the private car visible and have new decisions made upon. In this sense the representative of Greenpeace also emphasised that in the court case brought by this organisation against the modification of Madrid’s low emission zone the magistrates accepted the principle that health benefits from the reduction of private car circulation should have preeminance upon the driver’s ability to access certain parts of the city.

The Director General for Mobility presented the new mobility plan called Madrid 360 which aims at creating park and ride areas in the city perimeter, create a new bus lane in the A2 highway and turn the A5 highway in a green space as the road is turned into a tunnel. This plan also intends to create restrictions to the circulation of older private cars in neighbourhoods beyond the city centre and promote the purchase of electric vehicles both for collective transport and private users. Among the platform defending the previously existing low emission area actors considered the new plan has flaws in that more private cars will access the centre again whereas taxi drivers argued that electric cars are still very expensive and the city lacks basic infrastructure to charge their batteries. Indeed, the strong density of urban areas in Spain combined with the fact that many dense neighbourhoods lack private garages makes it more difficult to organise night charging systems. Overall the platform defending the low emission zone emphasised that the reform of the zone may imply that the European Comission resumes legal action because of the poor air quality. However, the DG for Mobility pointed out that Madrid is not meeting European standards despite the action of the previous city council and that more comprehensive action was needed.

The roundtables also showed the complexity of sustainability policies in Europe. Firstly, policies pertaining to sustainability affect local, regional, national and European executives likely to have different political preferences across the cycle. The politicisation of mobility debates may contribute on the one hand to make inefficient or biased distribution of modes of transport visible, but on the other makes it difficult to sustain policy options across time as new governments may feel tempted to discredit the decisions of their predecessors. Most participants agreed that this showed the case for a long-term collaborative approach to the governance of mobility but also conceded that this approach challenges the current understanding of democratic politics in most of our systems.