The Streets Are Mine
It’s hard to write about Madrid Central when you don’t live in Madrid and have no first-hand experience of its pros and cons, but I’m going to try. I don’t want to focus on technical issues like the size of the area the scheme should cover, or who should be allowed in, or how access can be regulated for residents and tradespeople. Like all urban planning strategies, Madrid Central needs to learn from its own mistakes, provide its own feedback and correct its own dysfunctions over time. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t look as if it’s going to be given the chance to do that.
The principal feature of Madrid Central, like that of any low-emission zone (LEZ), is that it restricts traffic. In certain circumstances, that restriction has been interpreted as an imposition which violates citizens’ freedom of movement, and there lies the big mistake.
I’m no expert on law, but I do know that one of the main advances in urban planning regulation was to limit private property. At university, we learned that this represented the biggest difference with Roman law. The owner of a piece of land was no longer allowed to build whatever he liked there because planning regulations now imposed restrictions on his rights to use that land and benefit from it. These limitations affecting private property have been accepted now for decades. A hundred years ago, when urban growth plans first began to envisage the future of our cities, there would almost certainly have been people who were outraged because they weren’t allowed to build a 15-storey, 40-metre high building on their land, but now we all understand that such regulations facilitate (or should facilitate) an optimal relationship between public space and built-up zones, an equal distribution of public facilities, and the existence of streets in which we can chat, play or have a beer with friends. Basically, they allow us to have fairer, more beautiful cities.
If those “limitations to freedom” affecting private space are no longer controversial, why should we make such a fuss over restrictions affecting public space? The problem arises when people start interpreting freedom as a synonym for the right to move wherever, however and whenever they want … an attitude based essentially on the idea that “the streets are mine”. But they aren’t. This vision of a supposed “urban freedom” is over. Low-emission zones are here to stay, and we should all be thankful for that: not only because they are a necessary strategy for reducing pollution but also because they will inevitably be accompanied by urban transformations which will make our cities more habitable places, spaces truly at the service of the citizenry.
LEZs, in all their diversity in terms of design, implementation and management, are appearing in all big cities. We have Madrid Central, or its new, “light” version (because classifying a 5-seat vehicle occupied by 2 people as a high occupancy vehicle is almost an oxymoron), the superblocks in Barcelona, congestion charges in London and Singapore, restrictions on diesel-powered vehicles in numerous German cities, and many, many more examples. Sooner or later these types of policies will be in place in all our cities, and 100 years from now their inhabitants will be surprised (or shocked) to know that their grandparents were able to drive their car wherever they wanted to the cry of “Freedom!”