“Superilles” and public transit

Opinion

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

In September of 2016 Barcelona inaugurated the first “Superilla” (lit. superblock, as in city block). This new project wasn’t free of controversy, although some part of this controversy was so ridiculous and short-sighted of pointing at the municipal government as incompetent, when it was a well-known fact that this project had been in development for many years, and that it couldn’t possibly have been developed from scratch in the short time of the current mayor. Consequently it is difficult to discern between legimitate and constructive criticism and destructive, partisan criticism. At BCN Movilidad our intention is to tackle this issue from the point of view of mobility and public transit.

As far as the distribution of urban space goes, the Superilla project is undoubtedly positive. Currently, the proportion of urban space dedicated to automobile use is a whopping 60% to face just over 20% of all trips. The idea on which the Superilla is based is not reinventing the wheel. Mexico City used a similar concept, although with a somewhat different objective: “Ejes viales” (lit. roadway axis) were conceived which would form a mesh network across the city, and would work as fast one-way thoroughfares, while the other streets would be limited to local traffic (a usage enforced by the use of so-called “topes”, very large speed bumps that force cars to reduce speed to about 10-20 km/h). On one hand the intention was similar to that of the Superilla to dedicate certain roads to through-traffic, and others to local trafic. Unlike the Superilla, however, these axes would be converted to fast thoroughfares while leaving local roads mostly intact, while the Superilla pretends to leave the through-streets intact while converting the secondary streets to lower speed and capacity so asto favor pedestrian and civic uses.

Mexico City is just one of many examples of the same basic idea, where a clear difference is drawn beween through-streets and streets dedicated to local traffic. (In the case of Mexico City one has to consider also the lack of a master plan which led to an irregular growth, so the “ejes viales” had also the function of generating transversal thoroughfares across the street, until then inexistant due to the lack of continuity in the urban fabric. In many cases this meant (re)using different avenues which would form one, more or less straight roadway axis, with varying results.) The idea of the Superilla is not new in its origins, but only the application of proven concepts to Barcelona’s urban landscape. At times it has even been said that it’s based on the ideas of Ildefons Cerdà, the famous urbanist who designed the Eixample, where the original design would have called for only part of the city blocks to be built on, while the rest would be open spaces or gardens. To which point one can (or should) relate Cerdà’s concept to the Superilla is debatable, and there’s likely a certain degree of “urban egomania” in these statements. At BCN Movilidad we’re more of the opinion that it’s not the best idea to refer to mid-19th century urban planning to justify actions taken 150 years later, but that instead every project should be justified by what it is and the possible benefits it can bring, not by what could have been thought in days long gone.

While the ideals behind the Superilla are in their origins very positive, it must be said that the way they have been put into practice have been anything other than thorough. This has been very noticeable in the way public transit has been handled in relation to the experimental Superilla in the Poblenou district, and in the information which has been made public in respect to the project as a whole. All the while noting the clear benefits of the Superilla, one can not overlook some uncertainties. In our previous article we talked about induced demand and the mistake of perceiving roadway saturation as a sword of Damocles which could lead to an imminent traffic colapse. But just the same one should not underestimate the weight of the automobile on the current patterns of mobility, nor the gradual change in this model. As I said previously, the automobile represents a bit over 20% of all trips. That these trips have a disproportionate amount of urban space dedicated to them doesn’t mean that this isn’t a significant amount of the modal share. Certainly the experimental Superilla and the closure of certain streets which already had a secondary function obviously wasn’t going to lead to a traffic collaps like some absurdly suggested (in fact, its effect over traffic haven’t been noticeable at all to the man on the street, not even in the very area around it), but implanting this scheme over the whole city could indeed have noticeable consequences. The Superilla is part of a general effort by the city of significantly reducing automobile usage, and failing to achieve this could mean the strangling of traffic flow, leading not necessarily to worse congestion, but a more constant one than up until now.

While induced demand as a consequence of roadway expansion is a reasonably simple concept, an “induced decrease” is more complex, and the source of our headaches. After all, for a long time now in Barcelona noone has proposed any significant roadway expansion. Surely a simple reduction of road space will lead to a gradual reduction of automobile use, for the very reasons previously explained. This has been the experience over the last couple of years, with a continuous reduction of lanes on certain thoroughfares. However this reduction has been slow, to the pace of one lane on primary roadways every few years. Now a lane on Aragó, now a lane on Balmes, now a lane on Gran Via, and so on. However the extreme delay that the city is showing in its own objective of traffic reduction in the period 2011-2020 shows that this progression is insufficient. The implementation of more Superilles could mean an acceleration in the reduction of road space. This reduction, should city hall play its cards right, could be taken advantage of to incite an acceleration also in the change in modal share in favor of public transit and non-motorized mobility. But all the same it could mean that the usage level of public transit does not rise in sufficient proportion, leading to automobile traffic not being reduced, while traffic levels would instead stabilize at levels higher than currently. Traffic and public transit being intertwined also means that when if there is no improvement in the convenience of public transit (or even a decrease due to overcrowding) the automobile would remain more convenient, despite a rise in traffic congestion.

For now and even though it seems paradoxical, the Superilla project has not been able to overcome planning mistakes mentioned in the previous article. The automobile is, once again, at the center of the project, even though in this case the target is the reduction of its use, instead of traffic management. At the same time, the Superilla project hasn’t been linked to any improvement in public transit at all. The “Nova Xarxa Bus” (lit. New Bus Network, from now on shortened to NXB) is a project closely related to the Superilla, but it also doesn’t mean an effective improvement of service other than the rearrangement of bus lines and frequencies within the narrow margins of TMB’s operation (which deserve their own analysis in a later article). The lack of combined planning of Superilla and public transit has gotten to the point where even the rearrangement of bus lines accorting to the NXB scheme still have each direction of certain lines running on parallel one-way streets, something that does not correspond with the Superilla schematics, where usually one single through street is marked between each Superilla. That is to say, the options for arranging these bus lines would be reduced to either having both directions run on the same through street, the keeping of not one but two through streets between each superilla, or that each direction of a bus line is separated by two or three blocks running each on a different through street. Getting to the point where the first Superilla is actually implemented without these questions having been properly attended to is simply grotesque. After all, we’re not talking about secondary questions to be revised according to the practical results of the experimental Superilla, but an absolutely essential element that requires clear planning, so as to eventually detect possible deficiencies. For now, and according to the information that’s been handed out by the city hall, it does not seem like there’s a clear idea of what to do with the bus lines. This is simply unacceptable.

This first experimental Superilla has brought with it another important issue related to public transit: The remodeling of Pere IV, and the rearrangement of bus lines which run along that very street. This will be dealt with in its own article.

From the point of view of mobility the Superilla is showing a great deficiency in planning, planning designed once again around how to manage traffic, rather than optimizing efficiency and convenience of surface public transit. Considering subway saturation in the Eixample district, one can not pretend the main changeover to be from cars and motorbikes to the subway. Nor can a single tram line along Diagonal avenue offer enough relief, seeing that it is made necessary by the extreme saturation of bus service along that avenue. It is impreative that planning of the Superilles is done with significant consideration for public transit at least in the same measure as traffic congestion is taken into account. The ideal solution will invariably be based primarlily on unifying each direction of any one bus line on a single street, so as to prevent the problems generated by the green wave. Consequently, these bus lines wouldn’t necessarily have to run on the same through street for automobiles, except if these were to be converted to two-way-streets. Another possibility would that certain streets initially considered for local traffic be used mainly for a public transit, for example using a two-way right-way-for buses, and in case of it being necessary one lane limited to 30 km/h, possibly shared with bikes. Of course this would to a certain point undo the “isle-like” quality of the Superilla (“illa” also means “isle”), since unlike the roads reserved for local traffic these roads dedicated mostly to public transit would have to keep their continuity, albeit reserved exclusively or almost exclusively to public transit. These streets could be compared to a certain degree to what is not uncommon in cities in Switzerland or Germany: A pedestrian road with public transit down the middle. A clear example of this can be found in Zurich with the Bahnhofstrasse, a commercial street in the city center comparable to the Ramblas or Portal del Àngel here in Barcelona, mainly dedicated to pedestrian use but in the case of the Bahnhofstrasse with public transit down the middle (in the form of trams). Since these kinds of streets would be prioritizing public transit they could be fitted with traffic light priority while minimizing the effect on private traffic.

An intermediate solution would be the unification of bus line directions on the same through street. This solution would resolve both the issue of having bus line directions on different streets, as well as having not more than one through street between each Superilla. However, the combination of through lanes and bus lanes on a single street would mean keeping streets with a lot of road space and little space for pedestrians or bike lanes. Dedicating certain roads parallel to the through roads to public transit would allow to divide nuisances generated by traffic more evenly: While through streets would still see the bulk of traffic, transferring bus lanes onto different streets would free up a little bit of space to dedicate to pedestrians and bycicles, in exchange for these streets within the apparent confines of a Superilla that would have the bus lines running along them sacrificing some space for public transit use, though they would still allow for generous pedestrian, bike or general civic use.

The impression so far is that the Superilla project has been carried out with an utter lack of consideration for this issue. With what little information that city hall has published on the issue of mobility the impression is that, contrary to the ideal scheme presented parallel streets will be maintained as through streets, which will keep combining public transit and private vehicles, both just running one-way. Consequently bus service will maintain the same absurd deficiencies as nowadays. Allthe same this could mean that the desired reduction in traffic is not achieved, or inversely that the implantation of Superilles becomes eternalized as has happened to so many urban projects like Glòries, the tram, or subway line L9. The consequence can be the annoyance of the general public for lack of results of a project of such large scope. A later municipal government could even consider the complete undoing of the whole project after finding a project that after 3 or 4 years has not been able to go further than the experimental stage, while at the end of the same time period, in 2020, a 20% reduction in traffic should have already been achieved.

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