Something smells bad in Barcelona


First in a series on the mobility issues present in our city.

Something smells bad in Barcelona, both literally and figuratively. On the literal level, what smells bad is the air. Barcelona’s air is becoming ever less breathable. With the worst years of the economic crisis apparently behind us, automobile use is once again on the rise. On the figurative side, what smells bad is a type of planning that hasn’t been able to properly deal with this public health issue. In Barcelona there still prevails a transit planning with the automobile dogmatically at its centre.

At times one gets the impression that politics is like opposite day. The more something is talked about something, the less they seem to do about it. At least in the matter of mobility this has been relatively true in the last couple of years. Thus, politicians of various colours have expressed both their concern with pollution and their compromise with public transit. Yet, at the same time, there hasn’t been a clear breaking off with the obsolete traffic model of the past. Despite that likely and in variable measure there have been good intentions between those empty proclamations, those same good intentions have not been enough to change old habits.

The traditional model for planning mobility was centered on traffic management. In the past, studies on mobility were centered on the phenomena around traffic congestion, while public transit was seen as a parallel element, rather than one intertwined with traffic. The problem of this model is that over many decades it has been absolutely incapable to actually resolving traffic problems. In the 1960’s the concept of induced demand was recognized as a key factor in traffic congestion. The logical conclusion was to start considering traffic as being intrinsically tied to public transit, as well as non-motorized mobility.

Wherever this relation has been clearly recognized and measures have been taken in consequence, the results have been quite satisfactory. The changeover from traffic management to planning mobility in general has led to a better response to citizens’ demand for mobility. Because in the end what matters to the vast majority of people is not so much the mode of transportation, be it the automobile, motorbike or public transit, but instead just mobility itself, while the mode of transportation is chosen according to which responds best to that demand.

Despite all of this, in Barcelona this concept of planning mobility hasn’t permeated into the administrative sphere. It’s always difficult and even painful to overcome internalized ideologies. In Barcelona specifically one could say that this accepted ideology is summed up as the perception that traffic congestion is hanging by a thread. As previously mentioned, induced demand generates a sort of equilibrium, where saturation of road space leads to a reduced convenience of private automobile, and as congestions increases ever more people will find more convenience in segregated public transit. This leads to the impression that traffic is straining road capacity, while it’s actually the other way around: road space limits the amount of congestion to whatever it can realistically assume.

The consequence of this superficial perception is a reluctancy toward the reduction of road space, and consequently the worsened quality of public transit, the improvement of which is prevented for reason of lack of available space. This leads to a vicious circle where the preservation of road space inhibits the improvement of public transit, while this same lack of public transit is responsible for traffic problems.

It is necessary to overcome this obsolete and erroneous thinking, so as to be able to open up to a perception of mobility as a whole, where automobile traffic has a close relation to public transit. It has been proven that traffic planning by itself is incapable of ever resolving traffic problems. The opposite would mean repeating the mistakes of the 1960’s-80’s, when the indiscriminate expansion of road space significantly worsened traffic problems instead of improving them, and left us a very bad smelling inheritance. Today, something smells bad in Barcelona.


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