I do not own a car, neither am I legally permitted to drive one. My answer to inquisitions concerning my licence-less state usually leans toward the environmental, but the truth is earthed more in sloth than planet-saving zeal. The closest I have come to moving a four-wheeled vehicle forward is when I and my motorbike were robustly introduced to the back of one almost 20 years ago. I have never had the instinctive urge to be behind the wheel of a car and rarely turn my head to the siren call of a roaring Ferrari. Much like Iggy Pop, in the world of the motor vehicle I am a mere passenger.
Last weekend, thousands of people descended on Madrid -- many of them on foot -- from the far-flung corners of Spain to reignite the 15-M movement. On the previous weekend, residents of the capital were warned to remain indoors during peak traffic hours due to the extreme level of pollution hanging over the city. The foul air in Madrid has become a political hot potato, mostly juggled inexpertly by the city's environment chief, Ana Botella. Called to task by her counterpart at the national level, Rosa Aguilar, Botella fluttered her expensive eyelashes toward Brussels and suggested the European parliament award the city a moratorium on target pollution levels. She went on to say that the only way to slash Madrid's emission totals was to stop cars from coming into the center of town. “We would have to reduce traffic by 50 percent, which does not seem possible at the moment,” Botella said, adding that “the planet is at the service of the human being.”
Thus far, Madrid City Hall's answer to the obvious pollution problem in the city has been to shift air quality monitoring stations from the center to greener pastures on the periphery. Madrid does not make the top 50 on Mercer Consultants' worldwide eco-living survey. Yale and Colombia Universities' Environmental Performance Index ranks Spain at 25, nestled between Belize and Panama. That Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón has not paused to consider the air quality issues facing Madrid in his megalomaniacal, and to date unfruitful, quest to bring the Olympics to town is an act of staggering arrogance: Madrid has neither the political nor economic clout of Los Angeles, or Beijing, and pollution is higher up the global agenda now than ever befote.
Madrid's Sol square, where much of the 15-M protest has been centered, hosts a curious landmark, kilometer 0 -- the central point of Spain's entire road network. It would be fitting if it became the focal point for a new branch of 15-M active protest; a blockade of Madrid's thoroughfares. The protesters halted traffic in Sol for around 20 minutes on Monday, with the police apparently disinclined to get involved with the same brutality that met the cordon around Barcelona's regional parliament. Another human blockade was forcibly dispersed around Congress on Wednesday, but much as volunteer citizens have rallied around the Platform for the Mortgage Affected to physically prevent evictions, the public response to a more concerted effort should not be underestimated. I am an armchair whinger at best but I would man the barricades. Why not blockade the city center, preventing all private vehicles from entering? Just two or three traffic-free days could bring the air quality back within EU limits, a place where it has scarcely dipped its toe in over a decade.
That might be enough to persuade vehicle owners and the political parties that a congestion charge should be introduced. Naysayers -- especially the occupants of City Hall, for whom such a scheme represents ballot-based suicide -- will point to the lack of evidence that such a charge noticeably improved air quality in London, but this is due to the sheer size of the English capital and the relatively small area of it the congestion charge covers.
The answer in Madrid, which covers about 600 square kilometers to London's more than 1,500, would be to extend the exclusion zone further afield, perhaps to the M-30 orbital road or the limits of Zone A on the metro system. To avoid too much backlash from disgruntled drivers, City Hall could introduce the charge as a pilot scheme for a month or two. In any case, any revolt on the part of car owners would be assuaged by pedestrians. After all, suggesting an entire city might like to remain indoors at the weekend is hardly designed to endear those in control of its functioning to voters.
And drivers could benefit as well; the money from the charge could be poured into Spain's euphemistically named motorways, which are little more than potholed one-lane construction sites choked with traffic trying to avoid the country’s pristine toll roads. That is the cost of choice. If with the income gleaned from an obligatory charge in Madrid the frankly third-world northbound A-1 and A-2 could be upgraded to something approaching the AP-1 pay road, for example, easing traffic and reducing accidents, of which I saw at least four when on the A-2 a week ago. It could even become possible to reach Zaragoza, Barcelona and Bilbao from the capital in less than a day. And little could be more popular in the aforementioned cities than the thought of Madrid coughing up for it all.
The 15-M movement is a genuine cause, born of the frustration of watching rapacious banks and a largely blundering, self-serving political class drive the nation to the brink of oblivion. But perhaps it is missing a longer-term issue; what's the point in trying to force through change if nobody will be able to go outside and see what it looks like?