Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, the traffic doctor
Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores has all but eliminated cars from the streets of Pontevedra, home to 84,000 inhabitants, making the Spanish city a model for urban redevelopment.
He may be the mayor, but don’t even think about calling Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores “sir”. “No no, call me Miguel! I might look old but I still feel young!” the Galician says, cheerfully. With white hair at his temples and steely blue eyes, 64-year-old Miguel Anxo is a pioneer in urban redevelopment. A farmer’s son, he became mayor of Pontevedra in 1999 and took the wild gamble of eliminating cars from the city centre and giving public space back to pedestrians. “At the time I was elected, people wanted to leave the city because it was dangerous, noisy and polluted. We needed to make a radical change,” says the former doctor. “Being mayor is a natural follow-on from my previous career. You can take care of cities in the same way you take care of patients.”
Public space dedicated to pedestrians
In the last 20 years, marked by five terms of office and growing trust from Pontevedra’s citizens, Miguel Anxo has revolutionised the city centre, turning it into pedestrian paradise. He has reduced speed limits, installed speed bumps and roundabouts, removed traffic lanes to make some routes completely pedestrian, redeveloped river bank areas, created wooded parks on the outskirts, prohibited new shopping centres so as to promote local business and, most importantly, stopped vehicles from crossing through the city centre on their way to another destination. “On some roads, we were seeing 28,000 vehicles a day. That’s more than on the motorway. It’s the just-passing-through traffic that clogs up city centres,” explains Miguel Anxo in his gravelly voice. “The key to our model’s success is that we only allow access by vehicles that are essential to keeping the centre going. This has turned a public space dedicated to cars into a public space dedicated to pedestrians.” Only delivery trucks, residents with garages, public transport, taxis and the like are exempt from the ban. There are still a few free parking spaces in the centre, but drivers can only park there for 15 minutes before risking a fine of €100. Car owners are instead asked to leave their vehicles in the free car parks built just outside the city and walk the ten minutes into the centre.
Less pollution, more people
The results of this visionary policy are nothing short of astounding. Traffic has decreased by 90% in the centre and more than 50% in the city as a whole. Greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted 70% and the CO2 emissions generated by each Pontevedra citizen per year have gone down by half a tonne. Most importantly, the locals feel like they have their city back, and are no longer itching to leave. Squares and café terraces have popped up all over the centre, children can walk to school safely, people in wheelchairs can get around easily and Pontevedra is attracting tourists and new residents. “Galicia loses 10,000 inhabitants a year. But in Pontevedra, we’ve gone from 73,000 to 84,000 residents in the space of 20 years, and our population is the youngest in the region,” says the mayor, gesticulating as enthusiastically as he speaks. “People have got their quality of life back. Everyone’s outside, they’re less stressed, and people come to visit from neighbouring towns at the weekend. Before, when I opened my office window, I would hear car horns constantly. Now I hear people chatting.”
A world-renowned model
Miguel Anxo has received a number of international awards for his city model and is regularly invited to give lectures on urban redevelopment, as well as being consulted by urban hubs the world over, from Shanghai to Paris and Mexico City. “I feel like I spend more time explaining what we’ve done than I do actually looking after my city,” admits, surprised, the man who achieved the considerable feat of turning this medium-sized city in northern Spain into a world reference in urban planning. “I would never have thought it, but what makes me happiest is seeing that the majority of Pontevedra’s inhabitants are proud to live here. That’s what it means to be mayor.” In the next municipal elections, Miguel Anxo hopes to be re-elected as mayor one last time before enjoying a peaceful retirement, full of leisurely strolls around his car-free city.