This city banned cars and no one seemed to mind

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Wrapped up in the motoring haven that is DriveTribe, it might sometimes feel like there can never be a world outside of cars. The residents of Pontevedra in northern Spain would disagree, having lived in a city in which driving a car has been illegal for years. The unprecedented measure was introduced by the mayor, Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, who believes he has made the right choice for his town.

In an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, Lores explained his theory of why cars have no place in a city. "The historical centre was dead," he says, referring to the town's state before the momentous law was introduced. "There were a lot of drugs, it was full of cars. It was a marginal zone."

"It was a city in decline," he continues. "Polluted, stagnant. There were a lot of traffic accidents. Most people who had a chance to leave did so. At first we thought of improving traffic conditions but couldn't come up with a workable plan. Instead we decided to take back the public space for the residents and to do this we decided to get rid of cars."

Banning cars in a busy city isn't as easy as you might think. It couldn't be done in one sweeping law because of how profound a change it was. Instead, driving had to be outlawed through a series of relatively minor tweaks to city regulation. For instance, one of the first measures that was taken was banning cars parking on the side of the street in the city centre.

This apparently made a great deal of difference all on its own, because one of the main causes of congestion in the town was commuters looking for places to park on key roads. Then, the local government was able to outlaw driving across the length of the city. Soon, they closed all existing car parks and opened new ones underground and on the outskirts of the city, so that drivers would be forced to keep away from the town itself, since there was nowhere to park.

Traffic lights were scrapped shortly afterwards and replaced by extra roundabouts, in an effort to make the remaining traffic flow pass through as quickly as possible and prevent bottlenecks. The car-free zone in the old part of the town was then extended vastly to incorporate almost the entire city. In the parts of the outer zones where driving was still allowed, speed limits of 30KPH were introduced.

It was no small task. Over the course of a few years, the city underwent a total transformation from a hub of bustling motorists to a reportedly serene pedestrian's town. "Before I became mayor, 14,000 cars passed along the high street every day," says Lores. "More cars passed through the city in a day than there are people living here."

Exceptions can be made under particular circumstances, it seems. "If someone wants to get married in the car-free zone, the bride and groom can come in a car," admits Lores. "But everyone else walks." So long as they don't disrupt the feel of the city, Mayor Lores doesn't mind letting people have things their way on special occasions.

There are, of course, some who object to the government's approach to motor vehicles. One of the biggest complaints is that the existence of a very large car-free zone slap-bang in the middle of a modern, urbanised part of Spain causes major problems for the surrounding areas. There are endless reports from neighbouring cities of crippling congestion on the periphery of Pontevedra, and the lack of parking spaces doesn't help.

Defending the scheme, the town's head of infrastructure, César Mosquera, claims that drivers shouldn't be taking up common areas with their vehicles. "How can it be that the elderly and children aren't able to use the street because of cars?" he says. "How can it be that private property - the car - occupies the public space?"

Local architect Rogelio Carballo Soler agrees. "The city is the perfect size for pedestrianisation," he says. "You can cross the entire city in 25 minutes. There are things you could criticise, but there's nothing that would make you reject this model." He is not alone in this view; it seems that the majority of residents share the opinion that the city is a better place since cars were banned, with some even calling it a "paradise".

"I've lived in Valencia and Toledo but I've never lived in a city as easy to live in as this one," comments one local. Another concurs: "I've lived in Madrid and many other places and for me this is paradise. Even if it's raining, I walk everywhere. And the same shopkeepers who complain are the ones who have survived in spite of the crisis. It's also a great place to have kids."

Mayor Lores says that the entire project came out of the local government's budget, with no extra funding required for the radical change. "In effect, these are everyday public works that have been carried out in the context of a global project," he says. "But they cost the same or even less. We haven't undertaken grand projects. We've done what was within our grasp."

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