Little, very little, has to do with the traffic in Madrid in the 1960s, when Alejandro Cintas left his eyelashes to compose Mi carro -the laconic rumba immortalized by Manolo Escobar-, with which he supports the capital today. Not even that of a quarter of a century ago. In 1995 the DGT counted 1.41 million cars in Madrid. Today, after an almost sustained escalation that only “pricked” during the crisis, are now 1.49. During those scarce 25 years the population of the metropolis has also skyrocketed. At the end of 2018 it was home to 3.2 million residents, 12.4% more than in the mid-1990s. The equation is very simple: more cars, more neighbours, more drivers… And more, many more journeys on the roads.

For years the City Council of Madrid – like those of other cities in Spain, Europe or the rest of the world – has resorted to ICT to help it assumes a “boom” of traffic that often leads to serious problems of collapse and pollution. City councils use algorithms like a syrup to help with heavy digestion.

The million-dollar question is, does it work? Does it do it in other cities?

The example of Madrid: traffic jams and pollution

At the end of 2010 Madrid announced a juicy investment of 1.9 million euros to implement an intelligent mobility system. The consistory commissioned Kapsch TrafficCom, a company specialising in Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), to carry out a project aimed at finding out the state of traffic in real time. The contract contemplated the installation of a network of 120 gauging stations equipped with intelligent sensors and another 40 for pedestrians and cyclists. The objective: to have up-to-the-minute information on traffic intensities, routes, speeds, frequencies… In order to avoid – or at least alleviate – possible traffic jams and accidents.

Over the years, the Eco TrafiX system, developed by Kapsch TrafficCom, has been implemented in other Spanish cities with a Smart City vocation, such as Malaga, Bilbao, Vitoria, Castellón, Donostia, A Coruña, Palencia or Huelva. A little over a year ago León joined the list after signing a 3.4 million contract with the same company.

A year later, Avilés also awarded it its traffic regulation service in order to benefit from the advantages of ITS applied to urban mobility. The enthusiasm of the city councils is more than understandable. In 2017, Kapsch explained that his goal was to predict traffic jams “up to an hour ahead”. “With this period of time, it is possible to take preventive measures that help improve fluidity,” Javier Aguirre, Kapsch TrafficCom Transportation’s vice-president for Spain and Portugal, told El Mundo.

Long before, Ana Botella’s government already boasted of a Smart profile that was being felt in different areas of Madrid’s public management, such as urban planning, bureaucracy, the environment… and mobility. In 2014 the capital signed an ambitious contract with IBM with a budget of 15 million euros until 2018. The programme, “MiNT, Madrid Inteligente”, once again put one of its focuses on the same point: road infrastructures. In a similar line, Piloto Madrid is framed, in which Madrid Calle30 and Emesa participate and which plans to deploy sensors along 32 km of the M30.

Piloto Madrid is in any case a small piece in a much more ambitious project, the C Roads, driven by the European Union and using ITS tools, v2v (vehicle to vehicle) and v2i (vehicle to infrastructure) in search of safer traffic. In addition to the deployment of the M30, it has another half dozen actions in the country: SISCOGA Extended, in Galicia; Cantabrian Pilot, on 78 kilometres of roads in Asturias, Galicia and the Basque Country; and Mediterranean Pilot, the widest, covering from Catalonia to Andalusia.

Despite this technological deployment, its firm commitment to ITS and the Smart philosophy, the reality is that Madrid has not managed – at least for the time being – to solve the mobility problems of a large metropolis. The best proof is that in order to tackle pollution and traffic jams, the City Council has decided to limit the transit of cars in the city centre.

Despite efforts to speed up traffic and reduce pollution through the use of ICTs, major city councils, such as Madrid, have been forced to restrict the circulation of vehicles.

Since November 2018, for example, Madrid Central – an area of 472 hectares in the heart of the city – applies restrictions to combat pollution. In addition to that measure, the city council applies a system of labels based on the emissions of each vehicle that also determines, among other questions, where and how long it can park.

According to the Inrix Global Traffic Scorecar, Madrid is ranked 22nd in the world’s most congested cities – in Spain it is the first – a position far above that which would correspond to it in terms of population. If only the number of residents is taken into account, the Spanish capital is 66th with the most inhabitants in the world. Conclusion: the quality of Madrid’s traffic is worse than that of other more populous cities and a priori with similar or even higher economic activity, such as New York (40th in the ranking of Inrix), Chicago (23), San Francisco (65), Dallas (122) or Houston (77).

Inrix’s analysis concludes that on average in 2018 each driver from Madrid lost 129 hours in traffic jams, just over five whole days. There are not many more than those calculated for Washington (155), despite the fact that the U.S. capital has two million more inhabitants. In the ranking is not so far from Paris, number 16, only half a dozen ahead of Madrid.

Another indicator is pollution, largely generated by city traffic and which is beginning to be a major problem in large European conurbations – in 2017 the European Environment Agency (EEA) warned that 31,000 people die each year in Spain from pollution-related illnesses. In February ABC revealed that in just 36 days -which was the year- Madrid had exceeded the hourly limit of pollution by Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) set by the EU for the whole of 2019. Shortly before, Manuela Carmena’s team had been forced to activate scenario 1 due to the high pollution.

The City Council is curbing the levels of emissions, but at the cost of traffic restrictions. A recent analysis by Ecologistas en Acción shows that in the area with restricted traffic through Madrid Central the NO2 value is 48% lower than a year ago.

Barcelona, another case to study

Madrid is not the only city that has used ICTs with a result that is at least uncertain, at least for the moment. Something similar happens in the other great Spanish metropolis: Barcelona. Proof of its bet is Autonomous Ready, a system promoted by the Ajuntament condal and the DGT and that -through a network of devices incorporated in vehicles- seeks to reduce the accident rate, especially that affecting pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.

The streets of Barcelona already have 170 vehicles in fleets and 79 buses that incorporate sensors and -according to the data released at the beginning of the year- the weight of ICT is far from being reduced: during 2019 it is expected to install 530 more systems in fleet cars and 105 in urban buses. The objective is to add 5,000 vehicles on the city’s roads.

Autonomous Ready is only part of Barcelona’s strategy to apply the advantages of ITS in its urban mobility. For years the city has had Bluetooth sensors to measure routes and routes and, if necessary, take measures to correct traffic. More than five years ago, there were almost 40 in the rounds alone. As in Madrid, however, Ada Colau’s government has had no choice but to resort to vehicle restrictions.

At the beginning of 2020, Barcelona plans to activate the ordinance that will regulate the Low Emissions Zone (ZBE), which aims to reduce atmospheric pollution by 15% in the 95 km2 most travelled. How? Vetoing the passage of the 50,000 particularly polluting cars.

The measure is urgent. Since 2010, Barcelona has exceeded the maximum NO2 values established by the EU. In fact, -according to data published by El País only a few months- 98% of Barcelona’s residents are exposed to levels of fine particles that exceed the WHO’s recommendations. It is estimated that every year in the Catalan capital some 3,500 people die prematurely from causes related to pollution. Another challenge is to stop the collapses. According to INRIX, in 2018 drivers lost 147 hours in traffic jams.

How technology is trying (without much success) to end traffic jams