Gridlock on No-cars Day

Thursday the 22nd was No-Cars Day in Madrid, Spain. On this day people are encouraged to leave their cars at home and make use of Madrid’s public transport system to get to work, when they aren’t walking or riding bicycles to do so. The unofficial ecological holiday is meant to promote an environmentally-friendly lifestyle as well as a healthy one.

In theory.

The reality was that last Thursday – the very same day that people were meant to leave their cars safely parked at home – saw both the city of Madrid and its surrounding areas affected by some of the worst gridlock of this quarter. One major highway, the M40, had two accidents in two different locations happening within fifteen minutes of one another, slowing down traffic to a crawl. Similar accidents happened on the M30, one of the major highways leading to the city, while another – the A6 – was forced to open its Bus-only lane to all standard vehicles in order to get relieve pressure and get traffic flowing again. The M50, one of the major highways surrounding Madrid, also reported jams. At rush hour, between the hours of 7.30am and 9.30am there was a 59% increase in traffic jams around and leading into Madrid. At 11 am, it was at 89%. Commuters flooded social media with indignant messages about the situation, and traffic flow was not normalized until 2 pm.

If the purpose of No-Cars Day is to promote a car-free lifestyle, last Thursday would seem to stand as a testament to its failure to do so.


Madrid’s Department of Transport stated that it could not be blamed for the situation given that all the elements which contributed to last Thursday’s gridlock were external ones, and thus beyond the control of any single individual or organization. It is worth noting that the Madrid Underground Metro Line 1 has been under remodelling / reconstruction since the 3rd of July of this year, a factor that the Department of Transport has pointed out as a contributor to the traffic situation, and that the use of cars in and around Madrid has neither been higher nor lower than other years.

Added to all this was a cycling tour in the city of Madrid itself – meant as a celebration of No-Cars Day – which required cutting off or diverting traffic on several inner-city roads, something that only contributed to the already-worsening situation.

In short, it appears that all the factors that contributed to the spectacle were all simply a perverse case of Murphy’s Law, but applied to the road: Almost anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.


Despite this bad luck, there remains an inescapable fact: Automobile sales in Spain have increased. In total, 13.98% more cars were sold in September 2016 compared to September 2015. Comparing total car sales from 2015 to 2016, there it’s estimated that there has been an overall increase of about 12.63%.

These statistics all point to the same conclusion: More people are buying and using cars in Spain than before. For some, this may be a surprise, given that Spain has been suffering from an economic recession and increased unemployment levels for several years, and while the country’s economic situation has shown some signs of stabilization, it has yet to decisively improve. Yet the rising numbers of sold automobiles, and of cars on the road, would seem to point to not only an increase in disposable income among the population in general but also to an apparent general need for more automobiles.

And despite any assumptions that more cars might lead to more accidents, once again statistics seem to dispute this: The first half of 2016 saw 30% less accidents on the road compared to 2015. While there is no apparent major change in the amount of traffic jams, in general Madrid drivers appear to be driving safely, at least thus far.


Ideally, the purpose of No-Cars day is to promote a healthier and more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, to encourage people to use alternate methods of transport to get to their place of work or leisure, and to help relieve the traffic congestion that always plagues major cities. But the events of September 22nd seem to have brought to light a fundamental difficulty with implementing such measures, particularly when one takes into account all the external factors that, through no-one’s fault or control, can turn a day intended to empty the roads into one of the worst traffic jams seen thus far this year. Added to this is the inescapable fact that car sales are increasing in Spain, and while there may be less accidents on the road there are definitely more cars on it.

Is No-Cars day, whether as an environmental act or even as a concept, possible or practical under such circumstances? Its purpose is to encourage people to use something other than a car – whether it be public transport, bicycles, or their own two feet – to get to where they need to be, yet data and events seem to show that what people want is to drive, and the Gridlock that plagued the Madrid roads on September 22nd could be seen as some as but an example of reality harshly imposing itself on a vain hope for change.

Yet others maintain that No-Cars day in Spain is not a false hope, and that the event has had more success in past years, without the problematic circumstances surrounding this year’s event, and that what happened last month was inescapable case of bad luck and unfortunate factors coinciding at the wrong time.

The fact is that right now, things are uncertain. There are still plans to hold No-Cars Day next year, and at the moment the sale of automobiles in Spain does not seem to be slowing down. It remains to be seen whether next year’s event will be a successful celebration of clean, healthy living, or another example of gridlock, frustration, and roads becoming ever-more clogged with cars that, in theory, were supposed to stay parked at home.



/Javier Alcover