My wife and I recently spent the fist two weeks in September on vacation in Barcelona and Amsterdam. While the primary purpose of the trip was our vacation, over those days, we got to experience some fantastic transportation infrastructure. Read on for some thoughts on transportation in Barcelona.
Long before the Spanish were exploring the relatively uninhabited pacific northwest in the late 1700's they already had well established cities. Barcelona was formed far before then with some remains believed to date as far back as 5500 BC. The image below shows Barcelona in 1543. As we can see it was a very well established City at that time and many landmarks from the painting below are still there today.
Compare the above image with this photo taken on my trip looking directly over the old town (from a Gondola which now crosses the bay). At least one of the tall towers (from the Basílica de Santa Maria del Pi) is still obvious in my recent image just to the right of the green corridor (Les Rambles). More importantly you can see the huge amount of growth in the City as it now extends far beyond the historic City walls.
More recently, the map below shows the plan of Barcelona in 1859. The grid pattern is well established similar to the pattern often found in North America, perhaps conforming even more strictly to the grid principle than most places. Streets are generally wide, but to provide sunlight and ventilation rather than accommodate traffic, allowing significant space for pedestrians, street trees, and more recently, improved facilities for cyclists. wide streets don't have to be car orientated, they just need to accommodate all modes in a manner that doesn't look like a highway.
Before getting into the transportation components of the City, lets take a look at some basic metrics for comparison. The City of Barcelona has a 2014 population of 1.6m within its administrative limits, but a suburban population of 4.7m, compare this with the City of Vancouver's 2011 population of 0.6m and the Metro Vancouver population of 2.4m. Barcelona is significantly more populated. The City of Barcelona encompasses an area of 102 square kilometres while the City of Vancouver encompasses an area of 114 square kilometres. Barcelona is also therefore, significantly more dense than Vancouver, with Barcelona having a population density of 15,686 people/square km to Vancouver's 5,263 people/square km.
Some points of note about the urban form, density is high throughout the City, albeit that density is usually in the range of about 5-10 stories, rather than towers. There are small supermarkets on almost every block, while not providing as a big a range of products, they make walk trips for daily essentials viable for everybody, the consistent density also supports this. Consolidation of services like in many parts of North America is what leads to reliance on the cars as trips for many become longer and difficult on foot or by bicycle. There are many public spaces through the City, although usage seems to vary.
Pedestrians in Barcelona have a pretty good time of it with wide sidewalks and marked, mostly signalized crossings everywhere. Waiting for the walk symbol seems unnecessary if there is no traffic, if the road is clear, most will cross on the red light. The signalized crossings do not feature push buttons, you must wait for your turn in the cycle.
On many streets some sidewalk space is taken up with parked motorcycles and scooters, but this is typically between street trees rather than blocking the main walkway.
Wider streets often feature pedestrian boulevards in the middle of the street, in addition to the sidewalks along the building frontages and a frontage road in-between. These boulevards are often shared with cyclists also.
in the Eixample neighbourhoods, one thing that really threw me at first was the wide intersections with chamfered corners that require pedestrians to divert off the straight path along the street at every block, essentially making the pedestrian journey longer. This became second nature after a few days but frustrated at first. This is a result of the intention to have wider streets to allow ventilation and light into the mid-rise blocks. The corners of these intersections are used for a variety of purposes, from short stay parking, to loading/unloading, and space for the large garbage carts where residents dispose of their garbage and recycling. This must be on-street as the buildings do not have underground storage for garbage rooms, nor any outdoor space to store private garbage carts.
Public plaza's are quite a common feature, and my one lesson here, never underestimate the ability of a fountain with coloured lights and 80's music to attract massive crowds every night. I was just surprised there aren't more cafe's around this to take advantage of the captive audience.
In the old town where the streets are mostly narrow to very narrow, pedestrians must be aware of people on scooters and delivery vehicles which are frequently encountered. As the old neighbourhood houses a lot of businesses, they still need service access, often requiring pedestrians to squeeze into a doorways whilst service vehicles squeeze past within inches. This all seems to work as well as could be hoped and drivers seem patient.
I understand bike infrastructure in Barcelona was almost zero 8 years or so ago. If that is the case, there has truly been a great transformation with separated bike paths abundant throughout the City. The bike paths in many cases are separated by what I would assume are low cost rubber bumps. Whilst not offering true protection from vehicles the way Vancouver's wall of planters might, they do succeed in separating vehicles and making the cycling space seem like your own with much less chance of encroachment from vehicles compared with just a painted line.
On routes with more available space, cyclists often take part of the central boulevards that would previously been primarily for pedestrians. These have been supplemented with bike specific signals at road crossings connecting the bike lanes.
In some instances, completely new and separated bike paths have been installed in the centre of the roadway with two way traffic, a buffer featuring raised curb and inter-spaced concrete blocks and grass. The image below is on the Passeig De Sant Joan, the street we stayed on. You can read a little more about the redesign of the street here.
I saw a few paint treatments for cyclists. Where they pass major intersections, the bike lane was painted red, similar to what we often see in Canada with green paint to indicate potential conflicts in this area. A few stoplines also had cycle boxes across the width of the intersection to allow cyclists to wait safely at the front of the line.
Cyclists frequently use the wide sidewalks also, something that rarely seems to be a problem and doesn't raise the ire of pedestrians like it would in North America.
Cycling has seen dramatic increase in Barcelona since the introduction of the improved bike facilities. This has been further increased by the introduction of the public bike share system. The network is extensive, and I was really looking forward to using this to get around the City on our trip. Unfortunately, it is only available for residents of the City who must purchase an annual pass for a very reasonable 47 Euro per year. Similarly to other systems, the first 30 minutes are free, you pay extra if that is exceeded. The system has 420 stations, 6000 bicycles and saw daily ridership of 28,000 riders in 2014. If anyone at the City of Barcelona is listening, I would have paid 47 Euro for a pass just for the length of my visit. A missed revenue opportunity for the City!
The reason tourists are not permitted to use the system is due to the tourist orientated bicycle renting companies complaining of the potential lost revenue. This is another example, like Uber, of restricting something that benefits the public for the protection of companies which are no longer relevant. I did not rent any other bicycles from the tourist companies, as they did not offer what I want, which is to travel by bicycle to various spots in the city and then leave the bicycle without worrying about theft or having to return it to where I started. I hope Barcelona considers changing this policy.
One further comment on cycling is that cyclists are not required to wear a helmet. Something that is required by law in British Columbia. It is ultimately a huge deterrent to cycling for some and something which makes cycling look dangerous for the uninitiated. With the right infrastructure there really is no need for a helmet.
The metro system in Barcelona really is fantastic, its frequent, easy to understand, cheap (10 Euro for 10 Trip ticket), it has real time arrival information and extends to many parts of the City. Transfers from one line to another are also easy and well signed.
There are also many bus services and tram services which I did not use while we were there, as well as many taxi's which we used a couple of times, fares were always reasonable. Below are a few pictures of the bus and tram infrastructure.
there are two major differences between private vehicles in Barcelona and North America. The first big one is that a large percentage of private vehicles are scooters, and the sidewalks are often lined with them parked between the street trees, which I understand is technically illegal. I couldn't help wonder who much worse traffic would be and how much more parking would be required if each of these was a single occupant car though.
Cars in general are smaller hatchbacks. I saw a few larger trucks and SUV's, but there is not the same number as you would see in North America. Perhaps the higher gas prices force this upon them, but it most certainly makes you wonder about the desire for such large vehicles that are often used for nothing more than the single occupant commute. I saw a few cars like the one below, it is the Citroen Cactus, and with no hybrid technology, gets up to 3.1L/100km fuel efficiency. If you were wondering the bumps on the side are, its protection against door dings. Their website asks why you would protect your smartphone but not your car? Its a fair point!
With regards to the roads themselves, one-way streets are prevalent and lane widths appear pretty narrow, being little wider than the small hatchbacks, some lanes are often marked as bus and taxi only.
Some of the roundabouts confused me at first, as you assume when you see a large circle in the middle of the road that it is a conventional roundabout, but either because of the introduction of one-way streets or the provision of central one-way streets and then frontage roads in the opposite direction we have essential two way roundabouts. The two images below are the same roundabout, you can see one part of it looks like a conventional roundabout, then you turn to your right and see the image in the bottom picture where there is a two way bike path between the two opposite direction traffic lanes.
Off course they still have their major roadways and traffic congestion too, indeed the road outside our apartment was frequently backed up several hours during the evening peak. Below is one of the major arterials into the City, but taken sometime in the afternoon.
Finally, I didn't notice this one until I got back and looked more closely at the photographs. I thought this was just a big signalized roundabout, which is of interest anyway as roundabouts are pretty rare in North America, but this one also has traffic coming from a tunnel in the centre to join the centre lanes of the roundabout, pretty interesting.
After leaving Barcelona, we headed for Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the No.2 ranked cycling city in the world. Stay tuned for that write up in the weeks to come.