In Porto, the car is a (false) symbol of freedom

The mist dances above the Douro River. Cheerfully tiled houses (okay, with a few dilapidated ones) on either side of the cobbled streets. A Golden Gate-like bridge connecting the city to port businesses across the river. Anyone coming from a flat and rigidly organized country like the Netherlands will most likely be momentarily caught off guard in Porto.

Cars rule the roost

As soon as the beauty of the city soaks in, something else will catch your eye: cars are everywhere. They pass in front of café terraces, make their way through shopping streets and when you finally think you have found a street so narrow that no car will pass, nine times out of ten you are wrong. All this is accompanied by honking, swearing (“Barbeiro!“, “Sweet!“) and exhaust fumes. Where Dutch cities have long chased cars and trucks from their city centers, they still reign supreme in Porto.

High NO₂ emissions

Vehicles are the main contributors to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) in the air. The European Union directive – an annual average of 40 µg/m3 – has been overtaken several times in Porto. in 2019, the average was 48µg/m3. In the Portuguese cities of Lisbon and Braga, the annual average was also above the EU directive. After warnings in 2019 and 2020, the Portuguese government has still not taken enough action to improve the situation. This is why the European Commission is now sue Portugal.

To keep cars out of town and do something about poor air quality, the RRF plan has 299 million to extend Porto’s metro network. Another 66 million euros will be spent on a ‘Bus rapid transit‘ system to improve the connection of the suburbs to the metro network. Critics say the metrics are a drop in the bucket.

Overdue maintenance

Francisco Ferreira, director of ZERO and associate professor at the Nova University of Lisbon

Francisco Ferreira, President of the ZERO environmental organization and associate professor at the Nova University of Lisbon, studies air quality. Ferreira explains that the problem in Porto is even more complicated because the NO₂ measurement system is not up to standard. “The efficiency of the measuring stations should be at least 90%, but in reality they are much lower. In addition, several measuring stations have overdue maintenance, or they are placed in illogical places – for example, above traffic lights – which makes the data unreliable. A good first step in tackling poor air quality in Porto starts with taking your measurement seriously.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental health problem

Even if the averages in Porto were to fall below 40, it’s still far too high, according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. They use an annual average of 10 µg/m3 maximum. The WHO has adjusted the guideline last yearafter research has shown that human health is compromised even at much lower concentrations of NO₂.

Despite the fact that the guidelines differ somewhat, the EU and the WHO consider air pollution to be the biggest environmental health problem in Europe. The European Environment Agency’s 2021 report estimates that 364,000 people die prematurely each year due to poor air quality. According to the report, approximately 40,400 of these are specifically attributable to elevated NO₂ concentrations.

João Valente Neves, mobility expert
João Valente Neves, mobility expert

The car as a symbol of freedom

“Sorry, I’m late, the traffic was crazy”, apologizes Joao Valente Neves. Neves is an expert in the field of mobility. He worked as a traffic and mobility manager for the Municipality of Porto and developed a model in which he mapped every street, intersection and roundabout in the city.

According to him, the huge volume of road traffic that the city has to deal with every day has two causes. “Portugal is one of the poorest countries in the EU. We only became a democracy in 1974. Since then, our economy has grown tremendously. Cars became and still are a symbol of freedom and development.

Also, in the 1980s and 1990s, there were very few rules or guidelines for town planning. Cars were allowed everywhere. “From a planning point of view, we made a few mistakes. For example, more and more people began to live outside the city while still working in the city. It still causes a huge flow of traffic every day. Fortunately, Neves sees that things are changing. “The new generation wants to go to work by bike or on foot. They also see the benefit of working from home.

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“I hate cars”

For Yoske (41), owner of a trendy clothing store in the center of Porto, this change does not come soon enough. His store is in a narrow, busy street where motorists behave “as if they were driving on a highway”. It drives him mad that motorists behave as if the city belongs to them and he also notices that it scares customers, especially tourists. “I hate cars,” sighs the entrepreneur.

Public transport as a public service

Neves sees the RRF plan’s investment in public transport as an absolute necessity. Many Porto suburbs, especially during off-peak hours and weekends, are poorly served by public transport. A car is then often the only option. In addition, transport authorities should also provide better information. “People are waiting for the bus in the rain because they don’t use an app to know the arrival times. Local transport authorities should take care of those who use public transport,” says the mobility expert.

Offering public transport as a complete package also has a motivating effect, Neves believes. “For example, think of a monthly pass that allows you unlimited use of the metro and the bus. Or a metro pass that also includes a few kilometers via Uber or an electric bike. This integration of the different components of the whole public transport system is very important.

Tax motorists

In addition, according to the two mobility experts, measures must be taken on the demand side. People who use public transport should also feel the benefits in their pockets – and vice versa. For example, by increasing parking rates or charging tolls for the two main highway bridges that allow cars to access the city centre. “It discourages people from driving into town, and with traffic still going over the bridges, you can invest in infrastructure.”

Ferreira believes that the local government lacks the courage to implement such ambitious measures. “Most cities today have low or zero emission zones. Porto have neither. Mayors are afraid to deny people access to their cars because the Portuguese value them so much.

A high price

Neves: “Do something about excessive – and dangerous – concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the air. The municipality of Porto must act, it owes it to its inhabitants. Making public transport more attractive and financially taxing motorists, as unpopular as that may make you, is a necessity. Because no matter how much freedom a car offers, the price the people of Porto pay for that freedom is far too high.

At the end of each working day, the cars of Porto residents form a long, honking, buzzing traffic jam. In the air, reddish-brown nitrogen dioxide gases mix with the colors of the setting sun. There is a lot to do before the Portuguese say goodbye to their cars. Saudade. But, if you look closely, you can see: change is in the air.

James V. Hayes