This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 143.
(and other ideas we’ve discovered on our holiday travels)
PONTEVEDRA: EXPLORING A CAR-FREE CITY
ROXANNE DE BEAUX
Late last year I read an article in The Guardian headed ‘For me, this is paradise: life in the Spanish city that banned cars’. This brought Pontevedra, a city in Galicia, Spain, to my attention as a city becoming well-known for its rapid and comprehensive pedestrianisation programme. When I connected the dots that my friend Maria was originally from this very city, I became even more determined to visit, being further encouraged by her descriptions of Galician cuisine!
My opportunity to visit came in February this year when Maria invited my husband and me to her farewell party in Pontevedra. We along with about 30 other friends from the UK and Spain descended upon this compact city with 300,000 square metres of pedestrianised medieval city centre and a population of about 80,000 people. (It seemed like most of the 80,000 knew we were coming to visit and they made us feel so welcome!)
The aforementioned article mentioned being able to hear the ‘tweeting of birds in the camellias, the tinkle of coffee spoons and the sound of human voices’ in the traffic-free streets of Pontevedra. All of this was true, and more! What
I experienced was a people-focused urban realm in a beautiful and well preserved, yet still liveable and very clean, medieval city. To me, Pontevedra far exceeded the experience of our pedestrianised streets in Cambridge.
What I experienced was a people-focused urban realm in a beautiful, well preserved, yet still liveable and very clean medieval city – it far exceeded the experience of pedestrianised streets in Cambridge
The streets had high-quality paving which was smooth, level and in good repair and well matched to the medieval buildings. There was excellent lighting late at night that made me feel safe, even in narrow and winding streets, and that further enhanced the beautiful buildings, gardens and squares. Some streets used obstructions to prevent traffic from entering, though it seemed drivers were respectful of the rules without needing rising bollards, ANPR cameras or garish yellow paint, and most streets were left wide open.
The streets were teeming with life. Every square was full of people enjoying each other’s company, good food, the sunshine, Galician beer or Vermouth and often live music as well. It was amazing to see children safe to play in the streets on scooters and bikes and with soccer balls too. This kind of free play is something I’ve only ever seen in parks here in the UK. Everyone just seemed so happy and relaxed; I know this is something the Spanish culture is well-known for, but Pontevedra exceeded everywhere else I have been to in Spain and I am sure the car-free environment has something to do with this.
I noticed a much higher proportion of people using wheelchairs in the city. Most notably, they were able to move about with independence and enjoy the space just like everyone else. We often hear the argument that car access is required for people with disabilities, but seeing Pontevedra made me think ‘what is the point of having access if once you get out of the car there is nowhere to go?’. To me, Pontevedra seemed to give people with disabilities real freedom to move around the streets. I would like to have had the opportunity to talk to them and find at out at first hand more about their experiences.
Pontevedra was the perfect place for a reunion of 30 people. Trying to gather and guide a large group like ours would be impossible in most places, particularly compact medieval cities or market towns. But with the space to spread out in the streets, and not feel stressed about motor traffic, we were able comfortably to follow Maria while she gave us a tour of the sights. It was interesting to note the positive reaction of others in our group who had no particular knowledge of or interest in liveable streets. Maria was asked many times ‘really, were there once cars on this street, and this one, and even this tiny, narrow street?’. Yes, all of those streets used to have cars, and at one time, not so long ago, no one thought it would be possible to exclude them.
Even with all of this pedestrianisation, Pontevedra is still accessible by car, but at suitable times and for access only. Through traffic is not permitted. There is a large underground car park that is easy to access, and on-street parking zones outside the centre. Car parks in apartment buildings and businesses can still be reached, but the access is slow and careful, and pedestrians have priority. All the drivers we interacted with were very considerate.
People using wheelchairs were able to move about with independence and enjoy the space just like everyone else
Beyond the medieval centre, Pontevedra still delivered an inspirational urban design. There are level and prioritised crossings for pedestrians and tightened radii on the corners of junctions. On-street car parking spaces have been swapped for cycle parking, café seating, park benches, planting and disabled parking, and streets were narrowed and textured with paint and paving to encourage drivers to slow down. What appeared once to have been a busy roundabout had a few arms converted to pavements, creating space to sit and admire some sculptures of famous citizens.
I had the chance to chat to a few locals about their experiences of the changes. They appreciated the pleasant city centre but noted that locals had issues with commuting. Most people who live in Pontevedra commute out to other places, for example, the neighbouring city of Vigo which is the industrial powerhouse for Galicia (interestingly with a strong car industry). And these commuters face a lot of congestion.
There was not much cycling in Pontevedra. Firstly, I think this is because the city is so compact and easy to walk around that for many there would be little point in getting out their bike even if they did have room to store one. Secondly, for those outside the city centre, there didn’t appear to be a lot of connecting cycling infrastructure. There were people cycling around the squares for leisure at the weekend, and many pedal cars available to hire. Cycling was clearly welcome, however, with cycle parking, cycling maps and signs. There is still construction work around the city to improve the streets and I would be interested to see if this helps with cycling infrastructure.
Further out of Pontevedra I noticed some areas of appalling pedestrian provision, with no footpaths and people forced to walk on the road next to very fast-moving traffic. So it seems to me that, as pleasant as the city centre may be, for many the only way to access it is by driving there.
I strongly recommend reading The Guardian article about Pontevedra which goes into more detail about how the pedestrianisation came to be and the motivations of the Mayor, Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, who began this transformation following his election 20 years ago. My visit was a social one and I think it was a great way to experience the feel of the city, as people’s enjoyment is, after all, what urban design should be about. However, I would like to go back on a more academic visit to talk to those who have been part of Pontevedra’s ongoing improvements.
For those looking for inspiration for Cambridge’s historic centre, I recommend a visit to Pontevedra. While our challenges are somewhat different (we have many, many more cyclists to accommodate), there is still a lot we could learn.
And a tip for those who do visit. In Pontevedra, free tapas are provided with your morning coffee which is best enjoyed sitting outside a café on one of Pontevedra’s pedestrianised streets or in one of the car-free squares. It’s one of those mindful moments we should treasure in life.
Read the article about Pontevedra at tinyurl.com/guardian-pontevedra. You can share your ideas for Cambridge city centre on Cyclescape thread 4010 where members are discussing the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Making Spaces for People City Access project.
CHELTENHAM: BOOSTING CYCLING AND WALKING IN THE CITY CENTRE
Since June last year, Cheltenham has closed several of its central streets to cars, vans and lorries. The experimental move permits loading and unloading for businesses in these streets between 6pm and 10am as well as buses, taxis, cycles and emergency vehicles throughout the day.
The trial is part of the Cheltenham Transport Plan, a council policy to improve quality of life in Cheltenham and increase its economic prosperity. The plan has five key aims:
- to encourage people not to use vehicles for unnecessary journeys, especially short ones;
- to contribute to health improvements by encouraging walking and cycling;
- to reduce pollution;
- to remove through-traffic from the town centre;
- to allow the free movement of buses and other public service vehicles.
Data collected by Cheltenham Borough Council in the trial’s first five months were overwhelmingly positive: the number of cyclists recorded passing the data collection point was up by 206%; there was an 84% rise in pedestrian footfall; and they recorded an 85% reduction in the number of motor vehicles.
In January this year, councillors voted to extend the trial beyond its initial six month period, to August 2019. Public consultation and data collection led to adjustments in the scheme including some road alterations and additional blue badge parking.
By the end of the year councillors will vote whether to make the scheme permanent, change it or abandon it.
AND WHY NOT TRY THESE?
BRUGGE: BIKE PARKING ASSISTANCE CHANNELS
The clever design of the cycle park at Brugge Markt includes brushes to slow your bike going down and a moving belt to help you going up.
CARDIFF: BIKE HIRE ON PRESCRIPTION
A new pilot will allow doctors to prescribe six months of nextbike membership for people who need to do more exercise or lose weight.