Cycling Barcelona versus Copenhagen: an Experiential Comparison

The other day I read an interesting critique of Barcelona’s cycling infrastructure titled “The Arrogance of Space”, by the Copenhagenize Design Company. As an avid cyclist living in Barcelona, and having recently visited Copenhagen on a week-long study trip with a group of students (during which we took in the city on rented bicycles, including a visit to the office of Gehl Architects), I thought I might add my two cents’ worth to this issue. Barcelona has always had mobility problems, and cycling is not seen by many in this city as a possible solution, but as yet another problem. And as happens with any attempt to ‘import’ and apply an urban model from elsewhere, there are significant differences that have to be considered.

The differences are numerous. First, Barcelona is hilly while Copenhagen is flat. Sure, the strong winds in Denmark can be as insurmountable as the final stretch up the steep Avinguda del Tibidabo, where tram tracks, queues of idling SUVs waiting to pick up pijo children in front of private schools, and the absence of a cycling lane guarantees a close call every time I go to ride the trails of the Collserola natural park. Barcelona’s slope also means that bikes from its Bicing bike sharing program are always amassing at the bottom, from where they need to be trucked back up to the higher neighborhoods of the city.

Barcelona also has a much greater urban density than Copenhagen. And as The Copenhagenize analysis correctly shows, the space of Barcelona’s wider streets are dedicated almost entirely to automobile traffic. In a high-density context, streets need to used for many things: everything from loading / unloading double-parked trucks, parking garbage and recycling containers as well as cars, outdoor café seating, skateboarding, bus stops, not to mention accommodating political demonstrations large and small at least two or three times per week. Barcelona’s pavement is used intensely precisely because of its high urban density, converting bicycling into a challenging, high-risk obstacle course.

Barcelona is also a lot hotter and sunnier than Copenhagen, a lot less safe in terms of personal theft, especially bicycle theft, and it has a lot more tourists. After bike thieves, tourists are a cyclist’s second-worst nightmare because, for some reason, they have a strong propensity to stroll right into the path of cyclists. The problems created by Barcelona’s high urban density are compounded even more by the hordes of tourists that cram into its streets and squares.

The Copenhagenize critique focusses mainly on the design of Barcelona’s cycle lanes. It’s true that the cycle lanes that have been designed to run straight down the middle of large avenues are scary for children or elderly people to ride on because they are only centimeters away from the fastest-moving vehicular traffic: the innermost passing lanes. There’s a small physical and psychological separation, to be sure, but in the event of a car accident cyclists are likely to be affected. Parked cars are the best physical barrier for protecting cyclists, but Barcelona’s planners have decided the best place for them is adjacent to the fastest moving traffic.

Another problem, one that is not mentioned in the Copenhagenize article, is the discontinuity of Barcelona’s cycle lane network. There are countless places where cycling lanes just suddenly come to an abrupt end, and the only way to continue is either to a) join the trucks, cars, buses and ‘motos’ in the street, or b) join the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Neither of these places welcomes cyclists, and during rush hour, neither option is viable. Just for fun, see how many discontinuities you can spot on the map below. Or how many bike lanes run for only a few blocks. Or even one block. Hint: look near the letter ‘B’ of Barcelona. BCN bike paths

I’m actually not convinced that building cycle lanes is what the city of Barcelona should be doing at all. In a city where trucks, cars, buses speeding motorcycles, pedestrians, tourists, demonstrators, cafés and ‘top manta’ counterfit sidewalk vendors are all competing for valuable street and sidewalk space, it has to be asked if motorized vehicles from suburbia occupied by one or two commuters should even have the right to enter the city at all. Talk about “arrogance of space”! But it’s not only a problem of space. The air in Barcelona is highly polluted, and vehicle exhaust –especially diesel particles– are another factor that makes cycling in Barcelona highly unpleasant. Whenever I blow my nose or clear my throat after cycling in BCN, I can see thousands of those tiny diesel particulates that VW cheated about in my used kleenex. Not a pretty sight.

Frankly, after everything that has come to light regarding vehicle emissions, internal combustion engines should just be declared off limits in inner cities. Where should the line be drawn, exactly, in Barcelona? The area within the ‘Ronda del Mig’ (the middle ring), which includes the most densely populated neighborhoods, would be a good start. Only people who actually reside inside this area should be allowed to enter it with their private vehicles. It’s what currently happens in the Gothic District, where it’s not a problem, so why not simply expand this to include a much larger area? Deliveries would have to be done with electrical propulsion, or by one of those cool Christiania-manufactured cargo bikes. Special, exceptional ‘lanes’ wouldn’t be for cyclists at all, but only for those zero-emission vehicles permitted to enter the city. Why not designate special ‘car’ lanes instead of ‘bike’ lanes? Who says cars have right of way over everyone else?

In the end, it’s not about cyclists or any other special interest group, but about citizens, because city air (which makes free, as the saying goes), is something we all have not only a right, but a vital necessity to take in.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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