A talk on recent transportation changes in Barcelona

A few weeks ago, I went to a talk put on by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, where a visiting academic from Barcelona came to talk about his experiences. I took some notes at the time, though I only now got around to writing them up, and there are a few places I wish I could elaborate more, but my notes are all I have.

They covered a few different subjects: the main ones being the bike busses and the superblocks. Overall, my takeaway is that the challenges in making these happen tend to get underplayed when talked about elsewhere. There’s this idea that politicians in Europe are somehow just more enlightened, but in reality these both sound like they were long, uncertain fights with an uncertain future. In some ways this is encouraging. There is nothing they are doing that we can’t do.

The bike bus

The bike bus is very volunteer driven, made up of many different grassroots organizations, many neighbourhood-based. Often the organizations around them are not official at all, consisting just of a website. Tools like centralized websites to help generate signs, however, did help the grassroots effort.

There were existing environmental groups, which supported the bike bus, but largely it was driven by parents who previously didn’t see themselves as environmentalists. Concerns about air quality (e.g. eixample resipra) and noise were big issues, and a growing awareness about air quality causing asthma, premature deaths, cardiovascular issues, and worse performance in schools. Air quality in Barcelona is often below what the EU considers to be safe standards. Climate change was not as big of a motivator. Just like here, climate change is often too abstract and distant to motivate people.

The social aspect was one part that made it successful. It was fun, and fun for kids, and parents would often go get coffee or something after. It also helped kids see the city streets in a new way, as a place that they belonged. Kis were on average 8 years old, and biked about 2 km. There was also often teacher support, whcih made it a success.

There was also a protest aspect of this - the school revolt (revolta escolar) where they blocked traffic, and fridays for future (maybe part of the same thing)? Interestingly, all of the protests were permitted. In Barcelona, if you fill out some paperwork, you can get a permit to block the street if enough people show up. The same happened with the bike busses, where there was police support requested each time. In fact, many parents refused to do it without the police.

This did force the city to create a process for bike busses that didn’t involve the police, since the police force was being completely overwhelmed by these requests. Part of it is that it grew very fast and without warning, and got a lot of people involved who were not typical activists. For weeks it was just 4 families doing it together, then it grew a bit, then got media attention, then blew up, and then after one summer and everyone filling out weekly demonstration applications and calling the police out for traffic control, they made an official process.

There was some pushback - worried about the “collapse of the city” and “what if every school does a bike bus”. The police tried to pressure them to go on less disruptive routes, threatening to withhold police protection if they didn’t go on a route chosen by the police.

Problems#

One issue is that the bike bus was mostly something done by wealthier families. Since it’s grassroots, it needs a lot of volunteer time to organize, a problem we also have here. Programs without funding tend to not be equitable, since free time tends to not be equitably distributed. Also, apparently less wealthy families in Barcelona generally walk to school or take public transit to begin with. It sounded like the need to discourage driving to school was more of a rich person’s problem, there.

Immigrant families in particular were underrepresented. Reading between the lines, it sounds like getting people to consider racial equity issues was more of an issue in Barcelona. The speaker mentioned feeling more optimistic about these issues being addressed by the bike bus in Glasgow, where they have much more of a focus on equity.

I asked if the heavy reliance on policing and the need to register your “protest” with the police might discourage some of the more immigrant neighbourhoods from participating - do the police have good relationships with immigrant communities in Barcelona? The answer I got was that they have no data on that, but their feeling is that this could very well be a big factor, given the attitudes of the police in Barcelona. In any case, it might be that more privileged people feel more comfortable potentially antagonizing the city by pushing for change.

Lessons here#

Generally, I think we have been pretty conscious in the bike community that police involvement can discourage participation. This does mean though that we rely on volunteers for traffic control and management. The pool of volunteers we can draw from is not large, and requires willingness to (and experience in) taking on a larger degree of risk. How to grow that pool is an important question that I think we haven’t quite figured out.

A more general problem is that any program needs resources: money, time, or both. It’s helpful in this case that the main resource needed is time, but time is something that is generally not equitably distributed throughout the population.

Ideally, a bike bus or similar would have official sponsorship and funding would be available for people within every community to organize and run them. At the same time, some of its value comes from the fact that it’s pushing the envelope on what the government is willing to do. On the other hand, deliberately annoying the government can be a lot higher risk for some people than others (even if it’s legally protected activity).

Car free spaces

There were two main categories here: limiting traffic around schools in a manner vaguely reminiscent of slow streets, and “superblocks”.

Around schools#

They tried partial and complete closures to cars. They found that completely removing cars had a much bigger impact than just asking them to be slow, because any amount of cars made it potentially unsafe. They did find that closing streets around schools to cars did get people to make use of the new space, and that the more they invested in making them visually different (e.g. greening the space) the more they improved the diversity of who uses public spaces, particularly by gender (I guess it’s more likely to see boys than girls playing in public? I felt like I was missing out on some background knowledge there).

They also found the relative success varied a lot depending on the local context and the quality of the car free space. In particular, they were most successful when there were no good nearby streets for walking on.

Superblocks#

The idea is to prioritize people over cars: introduce a 10 km/hr speed limit and have no through traffic. The goal was one in every neighborhood.

The first one was an actual block, and it didn’t go over well. It was created in a top down way with architects and had a lot of pushback, especially since it increased traffic on adjacent arterials. This approach was deemed not politically feasible to implement everywhere.

The second one also didn’t work great, because they spent way too much money on it, and it looked really nice, but it could not scale to every neighbourhood. But it sounds like by the third one they’d figured out a way they could expand the program fairly well. Now they do corridors rather than blocks, with diverters and nice new parks at intersections of the grid.

One controversy within the bike community is that they got rid of dedicated bike lanes in some places to make way for superblocks. The speaker said he thought it was ultimately worth it.

Other notes

  • The mayor at the time of superblocks being introduced was unusually politically radical, having had a history of activism, including getting arrested to prevent evictions. The mayor was not re-elected, though probably unrelated to her stance on superblocks. It remains to be seen if these changes will be permanent, though.
  • Barcelona has a huge bike theft problem. They refuse to install secure bike parking because it’s “ugly” but say they will try and fix it eventually.
  • Finding a place to park your bike in general is an issue.
  • Their bike share is very efficient: 6 trips per bike share bike (per day?) vs 1.5 for SF
  • Most trips are already by walking or transit, with 26% driving. By comparison, 64% of trips in SF were taken by car, which is substantially worse than before the pademic where it generally hovered around 50%.
  • They also have giant fights over bike lanes. There was one installed recently on a six lane road. Drivers are upset because they took away a lane of traffic, and cyclists are upset because it’s very narrow. The new mayor is threatening to rip it out.
  • Cyclists have also been advocating for bike access to a car-only tunnel that’s important for connecting different parts of the city. They did a critical mass style ride through the tunnel and got fined for it.

© 2024

A talk on recent transportation changes in Barcelona