Intermodes is a European agency dedicated to intermodality policies. It is connected to the Committee of the Regions of the European Union and its experts and partners research different forms of transport at the local and regional level. Intermodes holds an annual conference in Brussels, but they occasionally conduct experimental visits in different places in Europe to learn more about urban planning. Intermodes delegates visited Pontevedra back in September 2014.
What is Intermodes?
Pontevedra was selected to receive the 2013 Intermodes Award for its exemplary intermodal system of urban mobility.
The agency particularly highlights that Metrominuto is the first pedestrian map of a European city.
With kindness and sensibility
The belief in the internal force this city is capable of generating was one of the most important energies invested in the transformation of Pontevedra. Treating the city’s historical heritage –its streets and squares– with kindness and sensibility, together with the respect accorded to its natural treasures, marked the beginning of a transformation that was first dreamed and then propelled by local residents.
Guided by an encompassing model of alternative urban planning, a number of key decisions were made to place people at the center of urban life, with the conviction that it was the best way to achieve optimal levels of comfort in a harmonious and enriching environment.
Successive strategic plans were gradually designed to increase the space available for pedestrians and cyclists. Infrastructural schemes led to the complete renewal of public spaces, from sidewalks to squares, to pavements, to public services and the sanitation network.
Cultural schemes, which included the promotion of healthier habits, the defence of natural forms of mobility –such as going on foot– and the creation of new footpaths as well as riverside itineraries made it possible for the citizens of Pontevedra to restrict car use to its bare essentials.
The award that has been presented to the city of Pontevedra by the Intermodes European agency is a true honor. We thank the Intermodes panel of experts for their kindness and attentions. We hope that this important award will serve as a stimulus to continue working with humility, abnegation and common sense. We know that a different world is possible, so it is our obligation to, at least, get on with the feasible and keep getting better day after day.
Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores
Mayor of Pontevedra
The city stands on a rocky promontory of relatively low altitude surrounded by the river Lérez, precisely at the mouth of the Pontevedra estuary, open to the Atlantic.
Located in the centre of the Galician-Portuguese Atlantic Axis, which connects A Coruña with Porto, this is one of the most dynamic and densely populated places in the Spanish northwest.
Pontevedra boasts a fluvial character: apart from river Lérez, the largest in the region, smaller tributaries –Rons, Valdecorvos and Gafos– flow through the city. The marshes of Xunqueira de Alba, Lérez and Mollavao, despite the reduction in size they have undergone after infill land works, make up a system of wetlands a few minutes’ walk from the urban center. The river-estuary complex is an intertidal area of great natural interest, as well as extremely rich in seafood.
The city’s mild oceanic climate offers temperature values of 13 to 6 ºC in January and 26 to 15 ºC in August. On average, there are 15 days of rain in January and 5 in August.
The process of transformation began in the late 90s and brought forward a radical shift in the urban landscape, which, up until that point, had been based on the pre-eminence of private cars.
The pictures show the before and after of important city sites. They are a reflection of the scope of urban reform, which started in 1999, and signified the recuperation of pedestrian space previously inundated with cars.
Better on foot
After pedestrianization, the space that had been previously dominated by private motorized vehicles became available for walkers and universal accessibility was promoted as a means to facilitate the integration of people with mobility difficulties in the urban transport network. By boosting the city’s inner ring, which gradually transformed into a commercial and entertainment must-visit, local authorities prevented the construction of large shopping malls in the outskirts, thus avoiding thousands of car journeys and unnecessary greenhouse effect emissions.
Universal accessibility embraces the whole urban landscape.
The dignification of public space
Pontevedra’s transformation was also inspired by Francesco Tonucci’s The City of Children, whose main premise is to foster a healthier and happier childhood by making children part of city life and inviting them to play outside on their own. With this in mind, a set of traffic calming measures was applied citywide to increase safety levels and to dignify public spaces. The monograph Calmar el tráfico (Calming Traffic), by Alfonso Sanz, was a very useful framework that the advocates of city reform decided to follow.
Limiting the presence of private cars in the city meant that public spaces could be redesigned for pedestrian use; therefore, it was only logical that new footpaths and itineraries gave people going on foot absolute preference.
Walking or cycling around Pontevedra has never been easier, safer and more comfortable. Motorized vehicles are no longer a threat, the city’s streets and squares are full of people, the width of car lanes has been reduced and physical obstacles for vehicles have become generalized. In fact, Pontevedra was the first city in Spain to limit top speeds to 30 km/h.
Pedestrians at the center of urban mobility
The intermodal transport network gives priority to non-motorized displacements. Large areas in the outer ring allow drivers to park their car for free and then reach their destination on foot. More than 1,000 vehicles per day are parked in the outer ring at no cost for commuters. A 10-minute walk will do the rest. This car-to-pedestrian exchange saves visitors and professionals a considerable amount of time and resources.
Intermodal hub for buses and trains
The bus and train stations in Pontevedra work as an intermodal transport hub that brings together the local, regional and national communications networks. Inter-municipal and inter-county mobility is guaranteed by the regularity of the schedules and the availability of stops.
The link between the city center and the stations is not restricted to conventional transport; in fact, the Gafos riverside footpaths eventually lead to the intermodal hub.
Most bus lines whose terminus is located in the city center offer up to 50 different stops for users to choose from.
In addition to car-to-pedestrian exchanges at no extra cost, which are ideal for visitors and professionals alike, the urban mobility scheme allows for 15 minutes of free parking during business hours throughout the city, as well as service hours for deliveries and couriers within pedestrianized areas. Underground paid parking is available both in the inner and outer rings, 13,131 parking spaces in total. This system of smart parking has made it possible for motorized traffic to keep functioning in spite of pedestrianization.
The new mobility system has suppressed the unnecessary use of private motorized vehicles in the city center: now more than 65% of displacements are on foot or by bike.
Intermodality is based on giving prevalence to non-motorized traffic in the inner and outer rings of the city. Most visitors and professionals park their cars or alight their trains or buses and reach their destination on foot after a 10-minute walk at most. This saves not only time but also money.
A city that is free of excessive motorized traffic pressure becomes more comfortable to move around, more lively and kinder both to residents and visitors, thus boosting economic activity in the services sector and fostering proximity commerce rather than the construction of large shopping malls in the outskirts.
After the transformation, the ecological improvement is remarkable, since the drastic reduction in polluting emissions derived from limitations on the use of private motorized vehicles leads to cleaner air and contributes to the fight against global warming.
Finally, road safety levels are substantially higher after the introduction of intermodality and pedestrianization schemes: European targets and individual users’ demands are satisfactorily met, road violence is eradicated and casualties are brought down to a minimum. If road accidents were to take place, their consequences would be much less severe, as top speeds are limited to 30 km/h citywide.
Priority for the pedestrian mode in urban mobility and intermodality
In our societies, mobility needs are increasingly higher: roads, highways, subways, railways, ports and airports keep expanding their capacity and providing solutions to challenging public demands either individually or collectively. The safety and comfort of these infrastructures and means of transport is undoubtedly improving.
This optimistic panorama immediately disappears the moment we enter the urban environment. Mobility problems derived from the transport of goods and passengers in the urban sphere are still unsolved; in fact, we could say that over the last few decades this situation has remained stationary at best, although, in general, it has deteriorated.
Mobility has done nothing but improve over the last few decades, both at the level of infrastructure and public transport. Urban mobility, however, has been an exception: one could even argue that it has worsened.
There must be something, or several different things, that have led to a situation where large investments and thoughtful measures do not result in positive effects on urban mobility. Much has been done, but the results have been meagre.
The BlueZone and ORA parking schemes are only two instances in the long list of local and regional measures to improve transit issues, together with the introduction of reversible lanes, the adaptation of sidewalks, flyovers and underpasses, the design of traffic diversions, “going green” advocacy campaigns, mobility plans, smart traffic lights, congestion charges, restrictions on pedestrian flows, as well as on vehicle use by license plate number, improvements in the public transport network, among other initiatives. In certain very specific cases such solutions might have led to an amelioration, but the general problem of urban mobility and urban road safety stays as serious and unresolved as before.
When a problem like this, to which immense time and effort has been devoted using a diversity of approaches continues to have no apparent solution, perhaps it would probably be time to realize that one or several basic conceptual or structural principles are not being addressed.
What is more, we are not directing our attention to issues such as the increasing public demand for mobility, the local and national vehicle populations, the concentration of social and economic activity in urban spaces or metropolitan areas, the growing distance between work centers and residential areas, the gradual shift in town planning, etc.
These are unchanging parameters whose evolution is slow and complex to objectivize. In the past, there were attempts to build whole cities around the car, or at least entire neighborhoods, but nonetheless mobility problems did not go away.
Some variables, several kinds of deep structural or conceptual underlying causes are still unsolved in urban mobility. Unless these problems are confronted, any measures taken will fail, as they have already done in the past.
We are talking here about the deeply unfair disproportion, both real and official, in the consideration that is given to the different types of mobility, but also about the so-called “rights” acquired by the individual motorized vehicle, the passenger car, which could prove to be deleterious for any other mode of transport.
This is yet another unresolved underlying problem that is weighing on the effectiveness of those measures that seek to improve urban mobility and safety, as well as to counteract the worrying decline in urban quality, the quality of life in urban environments.
Other modes of transport have been suffering the consequences of this inexplicable imbalance and all of them have seen their functionality affected: the bicycle, public transport, pedestrians, and even the train and the subway, although much more indirectly. Walkers and bikers were hit the strongest by the predominance of the individual motorized vehicle. In fact, the use of the bicycle is trying to be encouraged in most modern cities, after being almost eradicated by the aggression of cars. Pedestrians kept losing ground to the dominion of passenger cars, to the point of becoming marginal. Today, pedestrian-centered cities are becoming possible.
The appropriate allocation of public spaces to various modes of urban mobility is a balancing act. Currently, we are suffering from an unfair pre-eminence of the individual motorized vehicle over the pedestrian. This is one of the root causes that must be addressed.
Pedestrian mobility is the most natural and essential type, the first in order of importance and irreplaceable by other types of mobility. All artificial forms of mobility may be substituted within the city network by their functional equivalents; however, that is not the case with walking.
The emergence of motorized mobility represented an incomparable advancement that made it possible for people to reach almost any destination in progressively shorter times, but its functionality was so pervasive that it created the illusion that more natural forms of displacement could be superseded.
Walking a few miles a day, apart from being natural and healthy, is inherent to the human condition, with the possible exception of physical disability, but in parallel to these important features, going on foot is the most logical way to move around in an urban environment, at least within a reasonable range of distances and times. Wherever the pedestrian mode cannot reach on its own, it is still possible to resort to intermodality.
Pedestrian mobility is a healthier and more natural way to move around urban environments, even more so when the distances and times required do not exceed a certain limit, for example 3 km or forty minutes.
Getting this kind of displacements to be done on foot stands as a decisive factor for the overall improvement of urban mobility. When distances exceed those pre-established limits, the pedestrian mode should still be at the center of intermodality.
So far, the efforts and attention have almost exclusively focused on the improvement of individual motorized traffic, while the issue of pedestrian mobility was left aside; therefore, the urban road network, as had previously occurred in the case of bicycle users, became dysfunctional and inhospitable for pedestrians, which, in turn, led to further restrictions in pedestrian mobility.
Sidewalks were much too small to allow pedestrians to walk comfortably, barriers were erected and detours put in place. Motorized vehicles gradually conquered public spaces and sat at the top of the mobility hierarchy, tasteless flyovers and underpasses substituted open-air environments, public lighting catered for the needs of the road network and left people in the dark. These were only a few of the consequences of this line of thought: giving absolute priority to motorized mobility.
Finally, a cursory look at the newspaper archives will be very telling of the preponderance of road networks: while poorly maintained pavements cause social outrage, it is infrequent to find a similar reaction when it is pedestrians that are affected by infrastructural decay. Another symptom: repair works are a well-known source of complaints because they affect traffic fluxes; however, pedestrians, who tend to suffer them the most, are seldom mentioned.
Pedestrian mobility should be given at least the same importance as motorized mobility in terms of the design, maintenance and management of urban road networks. This is a real challenge for local authorities and citizens alike if it is their intention to restore the natural order among the different types of mobility: the needs of pedestrians must be incorporated as a fundamental variable.
The principle of treating pedestrian and road traffic equally must be put into practice consistently. If the acceptance of this principle does not go hand in hand with the enforcement of concrete measures, the initiatives taken will be fruitless.
While design and maintenance improvements in the characteristics of pedestrian traffic networks are peremptory, the fundamental questions are still unanswered. It would be difficult to provide concrete technical specifications to cover this immense casuistry, but very easy to establish a clear and fair principle: in those streets where pedestrians and vehicles occupy clearly distinguishable spaces, the surface area dedicated to the needs of motorized traffic and parking should not be more than 50%.
This should be understood as a norm of motorized traffic, since the other modes will be sharing just the other half. Street lighting and furniture, bins, waste containers, overhangs, terraces, among other elements, take up almost 2 meters across. If we added bike lanes, the space for pedestrians would be reduced to a minimum of 2.50 meters across. Should the section of the road prove insufficient, the only alternative would be to design a single platform, apply traffic calming measures and establish pedestrian priority.
The different types of mobility, particularly the road and pedestrian networks, should be treated with equanimity in urban spaces: road traffic should never exceed half of the total street area.
The assumed principle that parking surface is a scarce commodity and that it must be shared equitably tends to bring forward a sequence of actions that could be summarized as follows: once all the space available for public parking has been occupied, this commodity continues to be scarce, thus the pedestrian network must be invaded to cater for the needs of motorized traffic alone, regardless of urban quality and mobility. Instead, the approach should be radically different: public space is scarce and much sought after; thus, its distribution should be equitable taking all modes into consideration.
The so-called right to park on public roads must give way to a collaborative use of public space by all mobility modes and therefore the loss of the tacit privilege that has become a monopoly of vehicles. Regulations need to be enforced concerning the uses of public space and collective interest should prevail over individual concerns.
There is a universal consensus on the fact that motorized traffic in cities may cause serious prejudices and cohabitation problems: air and noise pollution, saturation of urban roads, congestion, severe discomfort for alternative types of mobility, etc. Nevertheless, cars are part of our civilization and have been a very substantial technological advance that cannot be taken away from the urban environment. The solution to this dichotomy should derive from the rationalization of its use.
The fundamental question would be to agree upon a common definition of what is reasonable, equitable and feasible: the concept of “need” or that of the “essential service”. The point would be to draw the line between these individual and collective needs and to determine when they are justifiable, and therefore allowed, to resort to motorized mobility, and when it would be more advisable to act otherwise.
Compatibility, that is, reaching a balance between car use in urban environments and the consequences of its abuse, means setting up clear, sharp and socially-aware operational solutions centered on the concept of “need”. Traffic intensity should always be manageable.
High speed traffic in the city, a place where the unexpected is quite likely to happen –a child walking distractedly, a pedestrian crossing hurriedly, a vehicle taking the wrong turn, an obstacle appearing out of nowhere–, may become one of the main sources of accidents with dire consequences, a kind of Russian roulette that should be banished. With very few exceptions, a citywide speed limit of 30 km/h would seem appropriate, ensuring that safety hazards are suppressed and that the levels of air and noise pollution decline sharply.
However, the effective implementation of these measures is key. A speed limit road sign might not be enough if 10-15% of drivers do not abide by the rules, putting other users in danger and increasing noise pollution. At present, one of the most effective ways to prevent infringements is to build physical elements of traffic calming at strategic points in the road network.
Furthermore, the dangers and insecurity of urban roads should not be measured only in terms of the number of accidents and casualties; the feeling of insecurity is not as tragic as the effects on the victims, but it seriously affects the quality of city living and limits the autonomy of children, who can no longer explore their environment freely.
Moderate top speeds should be set for all urban areas, especially if the coexistence of several mobility modes might lead to accidents and, above all, to enforce the necessary regulations.
When a process is started with the aim of realigning the uses of urban public spaces and re-balancing the modes of motorized and pedestrian mobility, varying degrees of reaction and opposition should be expected, in some way reminiscent of that maxim frequently heard in the times of the Franco regime: “there will be democracy when Spaniards are ready for it”.
Strong opposition to the re-balancing of mobility tends to be a minority view, but this does not mean it is negligible or that it should be ignored. Statements like: “yes, but as long as there is a parking lot”, “yes, but as long as there is sufficient consensus” or “yes, but as long as the public transport network is expanded” may become an insurmountable stumbling block. The mode of individual motorized mobility, predominant and privileged, refuses to lose its consolidated pre-eminence even in the interest of general mobility, safety and urban quality improvements.
Recovering pedestrian mobility and finding a balance between the various modes should not be relegated to the implementation of long-term plans; that would be stalling the process and postponing the provision of solutions to pressing problems.
In Pontevedra, the implementation process is already very advanced, because the whole city has limited top speeds to 30 km/h and built the necessary physical barriers. When the basic principles and concepts are clear and their application consistent, the process is smoothly brought to fruition. A few important conclusions may be drawn during the initial stages of development, which may prove useful to guide all stakeholders through the project.
Quality standards in urban, pedestrian and cyclist mobility are very high; however, the city environment and its essential functions are not negatively affected by this shift in priorities. Quite on the contrary, the city becomes safer, more attractive and it works better. Anyone who “needs” to use motorized vehicles to carry passengers or goods is given greater freedoms and more flexibility than before.
According to the 2011 Local Mobility Study, two thirds of urban displacements were on foot, although the number of cars could continue to be reduced even further, given that too many vehicles were still passing through the city center to reach their destination.
Most of this motorized transport was not justifiable under the principle of “essential needs”. In addition, the accident rates are kept at extremely low levels, to the point that there have been no casualties involving pedestrians for the last 15 years in the areas where interventions were effected.
The improvement in urban quality, mobility and safety are remarkable when the intervention is carried out in accordance with the criteria described above.
By prioritizing pedestrian mobility, applying the necessary restrictions to motorized traffic, making strategic decisions on parking regulations, and clearly establishing the concept of mobility “need”, traffic intensity may become more manageable, the public transport network can function more efficiently and cyclist mobility should become more comfortable, fostering the peaceful coexistence of different modes through traffic calming measures, as well as the appropriate redesign of footpaths and bicycle lanes.
It cannot be argued that each city has its peculiarities and its defining characteristics, but there does not seem to be any compelling reason for these general guidelines to be equally valid for all cities. In fact, by dividing larger cities into smaller sectors and then applying specific interventions in select but interconnected urban areas, it would be possible to set the foundations of longer term urban mobility plans while preventing the emergence of unexpected bottlenecks at key intersections.
Our experience shows that the solution to mobility and urban safety issues has to do with placing pedestrians at the top of the priority hierarchy, higher than any other mode of transportation.
In a recent report entitled “What do cities sound like?”, which analyzed large areas of the city of Pontevedra using the criteria described above, the authors reached the conclusion that the predominant sounds were the chirrups of birds and the voices of children playing. It may seem idyllic, bucolic, strange or even unrealistic, but the truth is that such an oversimplification has a lot to do with everyday life in a city built for the people. What surprises visitors the most, particularly those used to the din of the metropolis, is the enjoyable ambient noise anywhere they go.
The advantages in terms of urban quality and road safety after following these relatively simple steps are so obvious that they eventually offset any kind of initial reluctance. We truly believe that building a city for the people is the right way to increase mobility and safety in urban environments. This can be achieved by putting pedestrians first.