This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 121.
Early this May I went on holiday to Barcelona. I am a terrible tourist and tend to like doing the same things on holidays as I do at home, these things being cycling, eating and drinking. So Barcelona was the perfect destination for me, perhaps epitomised within the first hour of arriving at our destination in Gracia where on our way to hiring bikes we stopped at a bicycle-themed cafe for a delicious lunch and glass of wine.
Barcelona is a wonderful city to cycle in. While not perfect, it is easy to see how political will has resulted in real action to make the city safe and convenient to cycle in. According to Copenhagenize (copenhagenize.com), only eight years ago there were virtually no bicycles in Barcelona. In a relatively short period of time it has become one of the leading cycling cities of Europe and continues to improve. Barcelona is climbing up the Copenhagenize Index (an inventory and ranking of bicycle-friendly cities, see copenhagenize.eu/index/about.html), reaching 11th place in 2015. It must be acknowledged, however, that Barcelona did have an excellent starting point with wide roads and avenues that allowed plenty of space for cycle lanes to be installed. They make for wonderful cycle routes with spacious lanes and established trees and gardens. However, narrow roads have also seen clever approaches to providing space for cycling.
The lanes are not just for tourists. Barcelona also has one of the world’s most successful bike-sharing schemes. Unfortunately for foreign tourists, the scheme is only available to people with a Spanish bank account. This scheme certainly helps to reduce the amount of cycle parking required around the city – I was surprised at how little there seemed to be, although there was always a space when we needed it. The share bikes also help reduce the risk of theft faced by locals. Any bike or bicycle part that is not locked down will be stolen within minutes – no doubt a symptom of the tough economic times. So wary of theft must one be, that our rental bikes came with four locks each. One back wheel lock, a D-lock, a lock to attach the seat to the frame and finally one to attach the basket to the frame. This made for heavy riding.
Despite the segregated provision in most places, there are still a number of hazards to be aware of, the most dangerous being the tourist. While we are used to this hazard around central Cambridge, the selfie-taking, backwards-walking, sudden direction-changing and oblivious nature of the tourist in Barcelona requires a very high degree of awareness, especially around famous Gaudi buildings. It is also very common to encounter skateboarders, rollerbladers and joggers in the lanes. Overall I found drivers to be very considerate; however, on the odd occasion we ventured onto a ‘car-only’ busy road I did find it to be intimidating – drivers certainly expect bicycles to be in their own lanes.
To cycle successfully around Barcelona it is essential to have a good map that documents cycling infrastructure, because this is still quite patchy and there are also a number of one-way roads that also appear to apply to cyclists. We often found ourselves at the end of a one-way road with no connecting cycle track and only a very busy road to cycle on. We would dismount and walk along the footway until we were able to rejoin a suitable track. I am sure locals would learn to avoid these situations but we did find it a challenge and it is these incidents that can put off new cyclists as they will not feel safe. Another annoyance was the awful phasing of traffic lights along major cycling routes. The constant stop/start was frustrating for gathering momentum: we were cycling with four heavy duty locks after all. Implementation of a green wave in these locations would be fantastic.
While we were there we witnessed the improvement and construction of cycle paths. It seems that Barcelona has taken the approach of starting with paint and lane-segregating armadillos as temporary measures while they slowly improve the lanes to create proper segregation. The construction sites that we encountered seemed to be relatively considerate of cyclists. The further out of the central city we rode the better some of the infrastructure appeared to be. There did appear to be a number of different approaches to cycle lanes with some being one-way and others bi-directional. Although this created some confusion, the basics were there with priority at junctions and sufficient width for cycling. Another creative temporary measure was a portable, raised, bus platform (see photo). This encouraged cyclists to slow down and made a clear and safe crossing for those getting on the bus.
Even the narrow streets of Gracia, where segregated cycling would not be possible, were made to feel safe through a system known as ‘Superblocks’. Rat-running is avoided by only allowing access to residential traffic, and roads are designed for shared use. There is no height difference between footpaths and the road. This level surface makes it easy for people to move out of the way on the very rare occasions that a car must pass, and it is particularly good for those in wheelchairs or pushing buggies. One of my favourite things here was a sign advising motorists to look out for children playing football in the street (see photo on facing page).
All in all, I would recommend Barcelona for a holiday, not only for the amazing food, drink and architecture but also for the ease with which you can travel around the city by bicycle. I was very inspired by what I saw there and it is clear that the quick manner in which Barcelona has implemented their infrastructure is due to political will for sustainable public spaces. The city is clearly benefiting from this, both in day-today life and through the tourist experience.
Roxanne De Beaux