Spain faces challenge to hang on to some of the gains

As one of the countries worst hit by the Covid pandemic, some of the changes to society in Spain have been far-reaching. In terms of transport and air quality, there have been three notable developments:

First, more people are cycling and walking, and cities are encouraging this. Barcelona is adding 21km of new bike lanes and increasing space for pedestrians on a number of roads. Valencia is offering financial help for buying bikes. Madrid is encouraging people to buy sustainable vehicles such as scooters and electric bicycles, in addition to ‘zero emission’ motorcycles.

A considerable increase in teleworking has helped reduce congestion. A study published in April by EAE Business School showed 88% of companies in Spain involved in some form of home working, compared to 4% before the pandemic. How impressive that is in reality is open to question: T&E member Ecologistas en Acción says only a few people can work from home, and they are outnumbered by children off school, so the overall influence of teleworking may not be huge.

The lockdown restrictions have also promoted more frugal and sustainable lifestyles. Citizens have drastically reduced their consumption and mobility patterns, focusing on covering basic needs (food, health, social links) and reducing ‘non-necessary’ activities (shopping, travel, etc).

Some of these gains will be permanent, but Spain faces a severe backlash from various lobbies, notably the car industry and a lot of politicians.

The car and several business lobbies are pushing hard for life to return to ‘normal’ to reactivate production and consumption patterns (many of them unsustainable). This pressure is likely to be very strong in the tourism industry, which has been dramatically impacted by mobility restrictions. Given that tourism makes up more than 11% of Spain’s GDP, local and national governments are likely to put economic considerations ahead of the environment when it comes to boosting tourism.

This goes hand-in-hand with the problems facing the public transport sector. While costs remain the same (or have even increased due to the need for disinfection), revenue has dramatically fallen due to the decline in passengers. Mobility in private cars is recovering much faster than mobility in public transport.

The desire to get back to ‘normal’, especially in a country like Spain that was so badly hit by the coronavirus, is understandable. But as the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig once said, ‘Even the break is part of the rhythm,’ and there’s no doubt that, amid its widespread suffering and grief, Spain has experienced something in the break from ‘normal’ life that many want to hang on to. 

T&E's opinion survey shows that 83% of residents surveyed in Madrid and Barcelona back effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution, even if this requires reallocating public space to walking, cycling and public transport, and 82% support car bans such as Zero Emission Zones. In addition, a study by the EAE Business School showed 77% of Spaniards believe employers should make it easier for men to reconcile work and childcare.

The challenge is now how to hang on to some of the gains. One obvious option is to build a strong coalition with public health organisations (and ideally consumer groups too). This coalition must publicly emphasise that a return to ‘normality’ means a return to pollution. It has been shown that the death toll from COVID-19 is higher in areas with more air pollution. In addition, science shows active mobility is related to various positive effects, so the increased use of cycling and walking has to become a regular feature and not just a temporary emergency measure. Some Spanish NGOs have suggested citizens should get an overall budget that they can invest in e-mobility – like an e-car or e-bike, train tickets etc – instead of subsidies for fossil fuel cars.

The desire to get back to the ‘old normal’ will be strong, but our challenge is to make the memory of the loss of friends and family into a powerful motivator for lasting change for a better, healthier and more sustainable ‘new normal’.

T&E’s Spanish member organisations assisted in the research for this article