April 2021, 8th to 11th

Barcelona: cycling as to implement the ecological transition?

Barcelona… In a way, the Catalan capital is the European metropolis that ticks all the boxes in terms of its appeal: young, economically dynamic, popular with tourists as well as being a location that enjoys a growing European reputation in terms of innovation and digital technology. Yet, in terms of mobility, Spain’s second city is far from being a model to be imitated. This is why the public authorities have been trying for some years to promote new solutions for getting around, including cycling. How? Who are the key players? Is this policy bearing fruit? What are the challenges for Barcelona in becoming a good European model of the future? We have attempted to answer these questions by looking closely at the “world of cycling in Barcelona”.

Barcelona, the poor European model

Let’s be honest: in terms of mobility, the Catalan capital has a lot of ground to make up. With direct impacts on the health of the local population. According to Jordi Sunyer, head of the infant health programme at the Institute of Global Health (ISG) in Barcelona, the local pollution rates exceed the legal limits of the European Union and the World Health Organisation every day. And 50% of this pollution is directly related to the particularly high levels of road traffic. According to a study by the city council, Barcelona has one of the highest densities of traffic in Europe, with almost 6,000 vehicles per km2 (2 times more than Madrid and 3 times more than London). In total, more than a million trips are made by private vehicle every day in the streets of the Catalan capital – 600,000 by car, to which we must add nearly 350,000 trips on scooters and motorcycles. All the players, including the associations that we met were particularly insistent on this alarming situation. Leading the way are the members of the Bicicleta Club de Catalunya (BACC), an association that defends the rights of cyclists at the regional and local level: Alejandro Martin, treasurer of the association, mentioned “the privileges of the car in public spaces”. Carlos Benito, its president emphasised the problem of scooters by describing Barcelona as the “Vietnam of Europe”. As for Xavi Prat, founder and coordinator of the Biciclot cooperative (which offers a second life to used bicycles, and also runs training courses on urban cycling methods as well as repair shops), he is championing a “citizen’s revolution” to change this state of affairs in Barcelona.

Cycling to the rescue of the Catalan capital

To free itself from this worrying situation, the public authorities have launched several major initiatives in the area of cycling, particularly since the arrival of Ada Colau, the first town councillor.

Bicing, the Catalan bicycle sharing service

In 2007, the local authorities launched a self-service bicycle sharing system called Bicing. At the time, this was a well-established trend, since Paris was deploying its Vélib’ system at the same time. More than 10 years later, the system has been renewed, expanded – currently 6,000 bicycles (still less than half the Paris Vélib’) and more than 420 stations (⅓ of the Vélib offer at this point) – and recently incorporated a fleet of electric bikes. What has the system achieved? During our report, we observed that Bicing is very popular with locals, and you will often notice that out of every dozen bicycles you come across, half are Bicing bikes. It must be said that, given the yearly fee of €50, the offer is very affordable from an economic point of view. According to official figures, the service has 110,000 members, with 1.2 million unique rides each month, 6.96 daily trips made by each bike (a figure similar to the number of daily trips made by Vélib’) and 300 km travelled on average each month by a Bicing bike. The most used stations are clearly located in the hypercentre: Eixample, Glories or Plaça Catalunya.

Infrastructure, lots of infrastructures

You are probably asking yourself, given the million trips made by private vehicles each day, about the challenges of making cycling safe in Barcelona. As you make your way across the city, it is quite striking to note the number of infrastructures dedicated to bicycles: One-way and two-way bicycle paths, on the road and on the pavements, traffic-calmed areas (limited to 30 km/h), priority areas for pedestrians (limited to 10 or 20 km/h) or the famous “ronda verde” (an interurban way dedicated to cycling)… According to Sílvia Casorrán, more than 200 km of paths in Barcelona are reserved for cyclists and there are many other facilities making life easier for cyclists. It is also worth noting that the city has special bicycle signalling facilities, eg traffic lights for bikes. In addition to these infrastructures, Sílvia Casorrán explains that the city is particularly well-suited to cycling, since the average distance to cross the city from one side to the other is only 8 km.

Can we look forward to a little “something extra”?

When all is said and done, isn’t Barcelona just one among many cities developing relatively unremarkable cycling policies? Think again!

A different vision of the self-service offer

What is striking here, especially when we look again at the comparison with Paris, is the low number of “shared” two-wheelers in circulation, excluding Bicing. Can you see what we’re getting at? Until now, the public authorities have succeeded in preventing the influx of other “free-floating” operators (without stations), whether it is for bicycles, scooters or mopeds by drawing up and implementing some rather drastic legislation in this area. What are the results? Despite the significant presence – in large numbers even – of scooters, they belong to their users. They are rarely “left” on public roads, especially on the pavements and are therefore not at all inconvenient when getting around the city. No one knows if this situation will continue, since there is talk that the city council could soon relax its controls on free-floating solutions… So, watch this space. Another peculiar feature? Despite the massive appeal of the city as a tourist attraction, Bicing is reserved for locals. This is not a consequence of the “Tourists go home!” movement affecting some cities that are fed up with the sheer numbers tourists, but rather the consequence of a political agreement with the private renters, of which there are “more than 100 in Barcelona, and would provide jobs for several hundred people”, according to Xavi Prat. Despite the logic, as a visitor, there is little incentive to hire a bike to visit the city… Naturally, this is a major source of debate!

A vision of the traffic-calmed city that is gaining momentum

There is another major subject that separates Barcelona from many other capitals: town planning and the way public spaces have been adapted for soft mobility solutions [Editor’s note: pedestrians, bicycles and other personal transporters]. From an urban point of view, the Catalan capital is divided into two segments. On the one hand, some of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods are actually former villages, whose urban layout and traffic level lend themselves well to a “soft” use of public spaces. The Gràcia neighbourhood as an example of this. It is an area where you see a lot of squares cluttered with bikes! As for the other more recent part of Barcelona, its development was the result of the extension programme of Cerdà that was implemented in the 19th century. It is to the latter that Barcelona owes the “grid” design of the Eixample neighbourhood, whose aerial views reveal that the “blocks” (buildings) are cut at an angle of 45º (it is difficult for us to go into an in-depth study of the contribution of the Cerdà layout to Barcelona’s town planning but we can only encourage you to learn more about the subject). Today, this town planning inherited from centuries past has been interpreted in a new way in the proposals of the Agencia de Ecología Urbana de Barcelona, with the Superillas (or Superblocks/Super-manzanas) concept and the city authorities are experimenting with this in various neighbourhoods. The idea is to mark out 400 m2 of urban spaces in the city, in which the traffic, speed and parking are reduced to a minimum, so as to maximise the public space for pedestrians and, subsequently, for bicycles. For having loitered in the public areas of Poblenou (first pilot project in this area) and Sant Antoni, we were amazed by this pragmatic and effective town planning tactic. Alejandro Martin and Carlos Benito have praised the merits of these pilot projects because for them: “the aim is to move towards achieving a traffic-calmed city. Rather than seeking to put cycle paths everywhere, the goal is to create traffic-calmed spaces, conducive to soft mobility solutions”.

There are still many challenges

Barça fans will tell you that the most important thing is to play as a team. Cycling will have to do the same, because acting alone in the middle of this urban jungle will have little effect. For the moment, the authorities are talking about a 3.2% modal share for the latter in Barcelona which, despite its ultimately small percentage, is a good start. To go further, we posed the same question to all our interlocutors: what is missing today?

Parking, a basic but vital need

To date, the efforts made by the public authorities concerning the parking of bicycles are not adequate, according to those we spoke to. Alejandro Martin nevertheless remained optimistic on this issue, and on his way across the Gracias neighbourhood, he put a few ideas to us: “Imagine the available space and the convenience for users if part of the underground car parks was reserved for bicycles!” Such parking spaces are needed throughout the city, but also specifically near some public transport stops to promote intermodal travel.

Rail travel, a cyclist’s best friend

The intermodal solutions between bicycles (also works with scooters) and trains offers extraordinary potential. Today, one only has to go through the different stations of the city to see that this is not used to its full potential. This is why the AMB has deployed “BiciBox”, a kind of secure parking for bicycles, so that users can park more easily. It’s a good start. According to Sílvia Casorrán, discussions have also been started between RCXb (network of cycle cities) and the Renfe (the railway network in Spain) to improve the situation in the main stations of the city and the country.

Support initiatives

Finally, it is obvious that the public authorities will not be able to take everything on. In Barcelona, it will be able to count on a network of dynamic businesses and associations, whose figurehead is surely “BiciClot”. The cooperative alone is doing a great job promoting cycling and has initiated the creation of the BiciHub in Barcelona, a space totally dedicated to cycling mobility, and above all, a place where all the associations and businesses concerned with cycling can meet to put joint projects together. In Barcelona, the public authorities have chosen to support this project, which is essential for its survival and hence for the creation of an ecosystem around cycling.

Is cycling the solution to achieving an ecological transition in Barcelona? After several days on site, a number of certainties emerged. Yes, the policy pursued by the public authorities is gradually bearing fruit: the self-service bicycle sharing system is popular with locals, bicycle facilities are becoming more and more crowded at rush hour, and a “passion for cycling” is making itself felt in the Catalan capital: dads carrying one child at the front and one at the back of their bike are not an exceptional sight; no-one would be surprised to see freight bicycles transporting goods while other are transporting families; the growing number of folding bikes or the sight of working girls in a hurry to overtake cyclists on their electric scooters. Indeed, Barcelona has clearly made efforts, and far exceeds the capital of the country, Madrid, in terms of creating cycling infrastructures: 200 km of cycle paths for 1.5 million inhabitants in the first, and only 43 km for 3 million inhabitants in the second!

Nevertheless, the challenges remain numerous. The figures we stated at the beginning of our report (omnipresence of the car, number of scooters and motorcycles, air pollution, etc) demonstrate that there is still a long way to go. And all our interlocutors insisted that it was necessary to keep up the pressure to ensure that there is a genuine “cultural change” in terms of cycling in Barcelona. Everyone also emphasised the absolute necessity to reduce car use, while also pushing a pro-cycling policy. At the end of October, the town hall announced that a low-emissions area would be in place by 1 January 2020. Cyclists, take heart! weaving in between the cars in Barcelona will become a lot less of a common occurrence!

Julien de Labaca
Photo credits: Julien de Labaca, the “Mobility Facilitator”