The Spanish Transport System

Plaza de Quintana, Santiago de Compostela, Spain - cc Lancastermerrin88

Plaza de Quintana, Santiago de Compostela, Spain - cc Lancastermerrin88

Is there anyone who does not want a car?” 
This was the banner beside a new car displayed at the entrance of the old town pedestrian area of Santiago de Compostela last Christmas. This small city in the northwest of Spain has one hundred thousand inhabitants. It also has one hundred thousand cars entering the city each day. The old town dates from the medieval ages (11th century), well before the advent of cars. Plans to restrict traffic here in the 1980s were deeply criticized. Mobile barriers that are only opened for those with resident cards were considered to have a negative effect on the small shops in the town and on the rights of people living in these old houses. Even today, any ideas for restricting or limiting private car use are met by responses from many unconditional car supporters.
This example represents the Spanish situation in respect to sustainable mobility. The economic buoyancy in the last generation has allowed (until recently) anyone to have a car (or buy a house). This fast change of the economic level of Spanish society boosted the car ownership and its use as a status symbol. Additionally, over the last 25 years Spain has used European Union regional development funds on new roads and buildings without consideration for the sustainable use of transport or energy. Now the major cities of Madrid and Barcelona have achieved record marks in air contamination due to the traffic. This is the challenge for Spanish authorities: they know the transportation recommendations from international institutions and the European Union, yet are in front of a society that largely does not understand that something has to change in order to avoid a critical situation that will effect not only the health of citizens but more deeply the economy of the whole country.
In Santiago de Compostela the increased price of petrol has not produced a higher use of public transportation. In fact, the number of bus users in the city has decreased. The bus system is very badly organized with wait times up to one hour between buses and their routes are usually longer and slower than using a car (or a bicycle). There is also a social aspect: men between 25 and 60 years old rarely take the bus. The transport system is seen as being for children, women and old people. When I decided to bicycle to work and sell our second car, my mother-in-law asked my wife: “Has he some mental disorder?” A real man, an independent man uses his own car to get around. Still, for a city like this, only five kilometers in diameter, the massive use of cars is overwhelming and absurd. Why do people here not ask for better public transport?
While cities in the central and northern Europe have been developing their public transportation system and bicycle lanes for decades, this has not happened in Spain except for a few cities like Barcelona or Donostia. One issue is that the increase of the number of cars is taken as an index of progress.
Yet we have discovered that this is unsustainable. The Spanish government has begun to study a new traffic regulation allowing bicycles to circulate on the pedestrian areas and pavements of the streets (if they are wider than 3 meters). Also the national authorities have expressed the intention to reduce the car speed to 30 km/h on streets with only one lane per direction. And even in this 30 km/h areas the bikes will have priority respect to cars. Amazing, isn’t it? I am absolutely in favor of these new rules but they come late and they will have to confront social opposition: many people assume that car restrictions are equivalent to individual freedom restrictions.
 — Faustino Gomez, Santiago de Compostela University (Faculty of Physics)

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