Saturday 18 February 2012

Madrid - No solution for pollution?

By Richard Morley.

Let’s begin with something quite disgusting. During my first winter in Madrid I caught a cold. That’s not unusual, it’s normal to catch colds in winter and I had had them before. What was new to me was that this was the first time I had to visit a pharmacy and declare myself “constipado”, and that when I blew my nose, (this is the disgusting part) what came down was black. Soot black.

I had been in Madrid for just a short time and this was the first time in my life I had lived in a city and I knew that the stuff my nose was ejecting was Madrid Pollution. At least it showed that my natural filters were working. Now, after a lifetime of smoking cigarettes this surprised me. How much stuff, far more than I suck in from my cancer sticks, was I breathing in from the air of the city?

Speaking with a friend’s wife I remarked that she would probably have no need for a tumble drier to dry her washing as for most of the year hanging linen took almost no time at all to dry on the line. Her reply was that if she hung clothes out where they lived, not far from the city centre, because of the pollution in the atmosphere, they would probably become dirtier than before that had gone into the washing machine.

I had read that Madrid is one of the world’s most polluted cities, but thought nothing of it until I caught that cold, but I started to wonder.

Then I got used to city life and thought little about it. The authorities assured us that things were getting better. The use of public transport that ran on natural gas rather than diesel or gasoline were, according to them, bringing huge remissions in the level of noxious gases in the air. The city have promoted, with dismal results, the introduction of electric cars and planted lots of trees. They had sensors all over the city and they wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

Except it is rumoured that the placing of the sensors was carefully selected to produce the best results. A huge screen over the tourist office in Colon displays colour-coded, red for bad, green for good, indications of the air quality. They are invariably green!

And yet, according to World Health Organisation, Madrid has seen a constant growth of polluted air over the past twenty years. Pharmacists say they have seen a steady rise in cases of asthma in the centre.

I am not surprised. Last month, when I briefly left the  city to report on the church at Majorada del Campo, I stood on one of the towers and directed my camera back to the city. The result is the photograph that heads this post. It shows the city smothered in a black blanket of nastiness. While I was out there breathing in that wonderful clean country air, my friends in the city were breathing that in to their lungs. A news report on television that evening told us that due to a combination of still air and a temperature inversion over the city the atmosphere was officially dangerous. That the city has seen very little rainfall recently hadn’t helped. Apparently the situation was to last another day until winds rose to blow it away.

A few days later, the group Ecologists in Action, presented some interesting findings and some damning criticism of Madrid’s plans to make our city a nicer place to live. The figures showed increasing levels of nitrogen dioxide and stuff called PM10, which is basically fine soot particles that can be carried deep into the lungs where they cause inflammation and worsening of heart and lung diseases. They often carry surface absorbed carcinogenic compounds into the lungs. The nitrogen dioxide also irritates the lungs and can lower resistance to colds and flu. Constant exposure can cause acute respiratory illness in children.

I’m no expert, so I’m quoting medical websites here. There’s also carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and something called “TOMPs”, or “Toxic Organic Micropollutants”. These last two come from the un-burned residue of internal combustion engines. There’s a long list of what happens when you breath them in. Suffice to say none of them are pleasant.

So, the Ecologists in Action then took a look at the remedies the Ayuntamiento had drawn up and found them lacking. Among their suggestions was a need for more areas of the city where the internal combustion engine is totally banned. To give Madrid its due, much of the centre from Sol and Callao to the royal palace do have that in place and electric buses do thread the narrower lanes of the city.

They also suggested lowering the fares on public transport.

Right now in Madrid this is a contentious issue. After raising the fare of a single ticket by fifty percent last summer, (while giving an eighty-percent reduction to the participants of the religion driven World Youth Day for a week – shakes head and wonders who’s in charge of PR for the city,) the metro is running a publicity campaign about how inexpensive it is compared with other cities around the world. For instance, they point out that London is nearly four times as expensive. The buses are just as cheap and they are all cheaper if you buy a multi-trip or season ticket.

However, the posters proclaiming this value for money have attracted graffitied scrawls comparing costs of living in those countries. They point out that Spain has some of the lowest wages in the western world, and that the cost of a metro ticket as a percentage of an average income actually makes Madrid’s public transport expensive. And it is actually more expensive than they think. Central government heavily subsidises the city’s public transport. Realistic pricing of the metro and buses would be a serious political mistake an lead to huge demands for wage increases. With so much unemployment and low wages I see the graffistas  point, but think it misguided and that they should be happy with such a cheap means of getting around the city.

But the Ecologist want to see it cheaper still to encourage commuters out of their cars and on to the trains and buses. But they also want to limit the hours of using taxis. Gulp! Right now the only way to get home after the last metro is by taxi. Ok, there are the “owl” buses that circulate through the night, but they are not frequent and have limited routes. So the solution is to run the metro 24 hours a day. Assuming there is no maintenance on the track, of course.

The ecologists do have a couple of very good ideas, though. One is for motorists to pay a charge for coming into the centre: this has worked well in many places such as the London congestion charge. Apparently a similar colour-coded scheme used in Mexico City, which only allowed a limited number of vehicles in each day, reduced pollution by twenty percent. They claim that ninety-percent of cars coming into Madrid only carry the driver. That the idea of car-pooling is unknown to Madrid commuters. Passenger-less drivers, they say, should pay a surcharge. As a pedestrian I agree with this. It might also make the roads safer for their other suggestion which is to encourage more cycling. Barcelona have the “bicing” (pronounced “beething”) scheme, which is a bicycle sharing program and last time I was there seemed to be working well – in the downhill direction at least. Madrid does have some cycle lanes, but in many places they have to be shared with the buses and taxis, and a big bus looming over your rear wheel can be unsettling!

The Ayuntamiento has a plan outlining more than seventy measures to combat pollution, but the ecologists deemed this a “papel mojado”, a “wet paper”, which contained nothing which would limit the amount of traffic in the city.

Visitors who come here in July and August often comment on the lack of traffic on the streets, which produce hollow laughs from us residents. If we do not wish to walk around in a cloud of toxic waste we will have to change our ways. This will not be easy. Madrileños love their cars, though I have to say I do know some who keep their vehicles garaged and only use them when they escape the city. At other times they use public transport, which is very good indeed.

But I can’t help remembering an evening when I was complimented on a show of respect for not lighting up while enjoying a coffee with a non-smoking friend. At the time we were sitting in a terrace café situated on the central reservation of the calle de Juan Bravo. On both sides of us traffic spewed out noxious exhaust fumes, which didn’t seem to bother my friend one bit. But she was pleased I hadn’t lit a cigarette.

But she has always lived in the city. Some things will take time. 


  1. your blog is fantastic!!!! Are you able to read an italian blog? I hope so! I'm your new follower!
    See you soooon!

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  3. wow - i really want to visit Madrid and I am excited to come across your blog. Although after hearing about all this pollution it does put me off a bit. It seems to be a common occurence nowadays. I went to Dubai around 12 years ago before it was booming and visited recently and it has completely changed from pristine sky to one of a smoky haze (unfortunately).

  4. Wow, I would've never thought that pollution is such an issue in Madrid before you mentioned it.