Madrid to use smart parking meters, other measures, to kick air pollution to the curb

Story by Olivia Sears

MADRID – Dressed in a gray suit and tie, Sergio Gonzalo gazed across the gridlock of cars during rush hour on a central Madrid thoroughfare and stepped down into the Argüelles subway station. For the past three years, he has chosen not to drive his BMW to work in an attempt to reduce his contribution to one of the most polluted cities in the world.

“It is sad to live in a city where pollution levels are so high,” said Gonzalo, 32. The bank employee explains that using public transportation to commute from the suburbs of Madrid is more cost effective and better for the environment.

That’s a message local officials hope will lead to more people leaving their cars at home. But the Madrid City Council is doing more than encouraging a shift. It has passed a new slate of parking fees and created a public bike program meant to give drivers more reason to utilize environmentally friendly forms of transportation. The city also upgraded its fleet of buses, committing to purchasing only energy efficient vehicles moving forward and outfitting old diesel models with filters to limit emissions.

Mariano González, a campaign leader for Ecologists in Action, an environmental advocacy group launched in Madrid in 1998, said the new initiatives come at a good time.

“You want to make Madrid more sustainable in mobility,” he said. “Now is the opportunity. Road traffic has decreased due to economic recession. This is a good opportunity to change our mobility pattern to new ones.”

The problem is easy to quantify. For the past 25 years, the Spanish capital has had one of the highest levels of air pollution in the European Union, according to air quality reports presented by the EU’s European Environment Agency.

One of the primary reasons for that, experts say, is that of the 800,000 cars around Madrid’s streets, 70 percent are diesel. These cars pump air pollutants into the air – including carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide – both of which are extremely harmful to humans.

As a result, for the past two years, the levels of those pollutants have surpassed standards set by the European Commission, reaching up to five times higher than the legal limit. The picture is even more bleak according to the parameters set by the World Health Organization, which has a more conservative standard for acceptable pollution levels.

XXXX XXXX, Madrid's chief of sustainability, demonstrates one of the new "smart" parking meter kiosks that will soon be installed in the smoggy city.

Elisa Barahona, Madrid’s chief of sustainability, demonstrates one of the new “smart” parking meter kiosks that will soon be installed in the smoggy city. The machine will charge fees according to how efficient a vehicle is, and how congested the section of city is. Photo by Olivia Sears.

City leaders have taken note, and developed a series of incentives to discourage driving and install the public transportation infrastructure to supplant the need to get behind the wheel.

In July, Madrid will launch “smart” parking meters that have a scaled pricing system dependent upon a car’s emissions. Smart car owners will pay 20 percent less than the standard rate of $2.72 per hour. Owners of diesel cars will pay 20 percent more, and electric cars will park for free.

To reduce congestion in high traffic areas, the price to park will also depend on location. In busier areas, drivers will pay 20 percent more, or another $1.20 an hour, than the standard rate to park. The only change citizens will have to make to use the new system will be to punch in their license plate number to classify their vehicle and obtain an adjusted rate. The environmentally friendly system is designed to quietly encourage drivers to take buses, carpool or bike to get around the city.

“For the first time in the world, we are applying environmental criteria to parking management,” said Elisa Barahona, the general director of Sustainability on the Madrid City Council. “Traffic is the most important objective for us. If people have to pay, they will hopefully leave their car at home.”

And if they don’t, experts say, the results could be disastrous.

“In Spain and all of Europe, we’ve seen the consequences. There has been a high impact on health, especially mortality levels,” reported Roberto San Jose, senior research professor at the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona. San Jose has been studying air pollution for the past 34 years, and his research has shown emissions from cars have the potential to take up to a year off a person’s life.

He explained that pollution affects all systems in the body, from reproduction to respiratory function. The increase in health problems leads to a rising number of hospital admittances, and therefore higher healthcare costs for Spain’s government.

On a global level, cars with low fuel efficiency across the world account for approximately 13 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. Carbon dioxide is the largest culprit.

As a direct impact of the parking meters, “The pollution will be decreased, hopefully, as the smart cars take the road and produce less,” said San Jose.

The parking meters are just one piece of Madrid’s effort to reduce air pollution. The city’s bus system is also being modernized. Of the 2,000 buses, 800 are now natural gas, 20 are electric, 10 are hybrids and the rest have been outfitted with diesel filters to be more efficient and less contaminating, Barahona said. The launch of a new public bike sharing program, to be funded by the revenue from the parking meters, is planned for upcoming months as well.

González of Ecologists in Action is encouraged by these efforts, but not satisfied.

“Madrid is one of the worst cities with sustainable transportation,” he said. “We agree with this measure, but it is not enough. It needs to be in combination with other measures.”

But at least it’s a start.

Barahona expects some drivers will be unhappy about the new fees. But she said they are important because public awareness alone isn’t enough to change long-practiced habits.

“I think that it is very important to explain to the population, to the citizens, that we are doing this because of air quality,” she said. “This is about life quality for the citizens, which has no price on it.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on June 4, 2014, in Reporting from Madrid and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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