Is Madrid really about to kill Europe’s most successful clean air zone?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Madrid's clean air zone has received rave reviews since debuting six months ago. [Photo: S-F / Shutterstock]

Madrid’s clean air zone could be axed by the city’s new mayor, despite the reported benefits. Jens Müller urges the new leadership to take a look at the hard facts. 

Jens Müller is air quality manager at sustainable transport group Transport & Environment.

Could you imagine Paris reopening its car-free promenade along the Seine to traffic? Or Amsterdam closing its bike lanes? Probably not.

Yet, something similar may be about to happen in Madrid. Depending on the outcome of the coalition negotiations in the capital, the current mayor’s beacon project, the ‘Madrid Central’ clean air zone introduced six months ago, could be reversed.

This would not only be a first in European history – no city has ever scrapped a clean air zone after its successful introduction – but would also kill Europe’s most successful clean air zone, as a comparative analysis shows.

Toxic pollution at a historic low

Before the introduction of ‘Madrid Central’ many people questioned its effectiveness. But the official data from May 2019 that green group Ecologistas en Acción has analysed prove them wrong: the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentration within the zone’s perimeter has never been lower in any month since the start of the current measurement programme nine years ago.

Inside the low-emission zone the decrease equals a spectacular -44% percent compared to 2018, and -26% compared to recent years with the lowest levels of pollution (2013 and 2014). EU legal limits are no longer exceeded at the official monitoring station in the city centre, reducing the likelihood of EU fines for not respecting official limits.

And pollution has not been shifted to other parts of the city either. Every single official monitoring station in Madrid showing a decrease in pollution compared to last year.

‘Madrid Central’ is Europe’s most effective clean air zone

This success story has earned Madrid admiration across Europe. News coverage across Europe has praised Spain for ‘leading by example’ and found that the Spanish capital was ahead of other European metropolises.

There is in fact no other city in Europe that has seen similar reductions in NO2 concentration after the introduction of a clean air zone, a look at research by the French Environment Agency and EU-funded project AIRUSE shows.

Berlin and Lisbon had so far been leading the way with a 12% reduction in NO2. Even if detailed assessments of ‘Madrid Central’ are yet to be published, it is thus fair to say that it is most likely Europe’s best clean air zone.

Clean air benefits everyone, especially children

That is a huge achievement for the inhabitants of Madrid. Air pollution is now the “biggest environmental risk” to public health in Europe and has lead to 93,000 premature deaths in Spain over the past decade.

The situation is even worse for vulnerable groups such as children who are not only more sensitive but often also exposed to higher levels of air pollution found closer to the ground. No wonder parents and children are among the most vocal proponents of the clean air zone, with 20 schools having launched a manifesto to express their support.

Benefits for quality of life and the local economy

And the benefits don’t stop there. The level of noise and stress in the streets has also fallen, making Madrid more liveable. This did not go unnoticed by foreign visitors. The travel experts at Lonely Planet have put Madrid on the second on their list of essential destinations to visit this year, citing car free zones and the reduction in traffic in the city centre.

Local shop owners will be happy to hear that and don’t have to fear a collapse of the local economy predicted by some opponents of ‘Madrid Central’.

Specialised consultancy CBRE looked at the effect of ‘Madrid Central’ on local shops and found that the number of shop visitors remained stable while the value of apartments increased significantly.

And ‘Madrid Central’ also drives the wider transition towards cleaner cars. Sales of alternatively-fuelled cars have increased by 93% in the Community of Madrid between the first quarter of 2018 and 2019, according to the data of the Spanish Association of car and truck manufacturers (ANFAC).

All this indicates it would be irresponsible to reverse ‘Madrid Central’. It has made the city healthier, more liveable and attractive and put the capital on the map as Europe’s new clean air champion. Whoever will be the next mayor must look the facts and think about how to develop, not scrap, the successful policy.

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