Bikes and Barcelona


Fourth and last in a series on the mobility issues present in our city.

A lot has been written about bikes in Barcelona, and a lot of damagogy, too. If demagogy runs rampant in the discussion of public transportation, this is even more true in respect to bycicles. These situations make it difficult to talk about these issues in a serious way, since there’s always the looming danger of any considerations being hijacked by sectarian elements either to attack it, or to use it to attack others. Bycicla usage is without a doubt positive for any city, something even more pronounced in a compact city like Barcelona where distances are often reasonably short and cycling would thus be an attractive option.

Bycicles have seen somewhat of a resurgen in Barcelona over the last years, all the while different measures have been taken to promote their use. Probably the first such measure, excluding the discontinuous and erratic bike lanes previous to it, was the introduction of the (rather pathetically named) “Bicing”, the public bike rental service. This service caused bike use to rise to the point where the continuous establishing of new bike lanes was eventually accepted as a convention. The current city hall took another step when they marked as a clear priority the expansion of the bike lane network toward a reasonable coverage. Barcelona is but following the example of other European cities, where the existance of facilities for the use of bikes has been commonly accepted and is seen as perfectly normal by their citizens.

In Barcelona, a main problem generated by bike use is the difficulty of coexisting with other road uses. Despite the positive aspects of bike use one can not ignore that disrespectful or even unlawful behaviours by a part of the cyclist collective poses a problem. It’s common to see cyclists passing red lights at busy intersections, cyclists riding too fast on sidewalks or unwilling to dismount at narrow spaces (like scaffoldings in front of buildings), the continuous invasion of bus lanes or dangerous maneuvers coupled with a lack of (or even ignorance about) turn signalling. This situation is not at all surprising: Firstly, because the process of promoting bike use was done putting the cart before the horse, starting out with a bike rental service which encouraged people who were clearly lacking any education about cycling in urban areas to ride on streets lacking any kind of signaling (or on the sidewalks, which isn’t much of a solution in the long run); and secondly because Barcelona generally has a problem with coexistance of different transports due to a minority of users, those using private motorized transportation, have by far the largest part of road space (about 60%) dedicated to them, while all other uses have to make due with the leftovers.

The promotion of bike use couldn’t have been done worse even if you put effort into screwing up. In a city where bike use was practically zero and bike lanes existed more for sunday strolls rather than daily use (such as the bike lane running along Diagonal avenue) a bike rental service made no sense whatsoever. It seems evident that it was more of a publicity stunt to appeal to “hipster liberals” and the like, no offense to respectable liberals. The “Bicing”‘s high subsidy (around 80% vs. about 40% for public transit) wasn’t even that much of an issue, since the total cost of this service is not that significant, but its main problem has been that it compels a large number of people toward using bycicles without them or the infrastructure being properly prepared for it. What’s the point in promoting bike use to people who don’t know how to behave in traffic, in a city where bike use isn’t normalized?

There are some cycling collectives that oppose bike lanes and defend riding in the conventional lanes. This can be an option for experienced bikers that know how to behave among automobiles. However to achieve an extensive use of bikes this is certainly not the way, but instead it’s necessary to have infrastructure adapted for easy bike use, ideally a physical separation from motorized traffic. It is commonly accepted that the ideal distribution has three “levels” of road space: Cars and public transit, then bikes, then pedestrians. If the idea was to popularize bike use why not start with this instead of the bike rental service? Possibly because on a political level this would have led to another of those entertaining Catch-22’s: Why have bike lanes in a city where noone rides a bike? And how are people going to use bikes if infrastructure isn’t adapted to it? In a way, one must acknowledge that the bike rental service has been useful to change the general perception on infrastructural needs, although it did so in a brutal and careless way, letting loose a lot of cyclists into traffic until people would get fed up enough with that situation so as to lead to the logical decision of adapting infrastructure.

This leads us to the truly controversial question, which is wether there is really the need to promote bike use in Barcelona, or at least an imminent need to do so. It’s true that the expression that “now isn’t the time” for something (“ara no toca” an expression associated with Jordi Pujol) is usually used not to postpone but to veto without the intention of ever coming back to said issue be it not for an external imperative. In this case we’ll be explicit: Should it have been considered, before beginning to promote bike use, to do this not as an end in itself but rather as an addition to a significant change on mobility politics focused mainly on public transit?

Bike promotion has been part of a series of politics focused on the reduction of private vehicle usage. The current municipal government has so far given more weight to cycling than to public transit, at least in regard to institutional communication. Large banners and publicity campaigns with cute slogans like “park inside the office” have been clearly directed at getting people to ride a bike instead of using motor vehicles. However little empirical evidence supports this strategy, because it’s difficult to find a correlation between more bike usage leading to less car usage. A campaign that in our opinion has been completely absurd is the one called “Copenhagenize”, which takes Copenhagen as a model, a city which has high levels of bike usage.The absurdity resides in this campaign looking selectively at the levels of cycling to prove the model’s success, while Copenhagen is actually not that close to being a model city in regards to mobility: If we look at the 2014 modal split we see that bikes, with a 30% share, aren’t even the largest part, they’re surpassed by automobile use which has a 33% share, while public transit is 20% and walking is the other 17%. As a comparison in Barcelona (data from 2013) bike use is little more than 1%, but walking has a 32% share, while public transit is at a 39% share and automobiles at 27%. That is to say, in proportion there’s less car use in Barcelona than in Copenhagen. The difference is that Copenhagen is a city of 600.000 inhabitants with less than half the density, so traffic is less of an issue. But those often shown images of masses of cyclists in Copenhagen don’t mean anything. In Barcelona, with all our problems, we’ve done our homework better than in Copenhagen, it’s just that we have much more work to do due to the larger size and density of the city.

A different situation can be observed in Amsterdam, another often-cited example of a city where bike use is predominant. Here, cycling has a 40% share, while public transit has 29%, automobiles 27%, and walking gets merely 4%. Copenhagen pales in comparison to Amsterdams modal split. Yet despite this, both in Copenhagen as in Amsterdam one finds a curious phenomenon: The large bike use is in contrast to rather few pedestrians. This leads to think that it’s pedestrians rather than car drivers that switch over to riding a bike. This isn’t really surprising for cities which aren’t designed mainly around the automobile: Few people use cars for short trips where a bike would be a reasonable alternative. It’s difficult to find large cities which contrast with these findings. Paris and Tokio are two of them: In Paris, automobiles get just a 20% share, while public transit gets 50%, with 15% walking and 5% cycling. In Tokio public transit use gets a 51% share, while automobiles have a meager 12%, bikes 14% and pedestrians 23%. In both cases and similar to Barcelona, the high density becomes perceptible, since significant traffic is generated despite a proportionally low use of automobiles.

Our reasoning at Barcelona Movilidad is that bikes are never truly instrumental in reducing traffic congestion. Bikes seem to behave more as an addition to public transport (the stereotype being the use of a bike to reach a station), and in general as a substitute of pedestrians. The conclusion is thus that cycling is quite unlikely to be what spurs the reduction of traffic congestion. The required impulse will invariably come through public transit. This, however, does not contradict the positive elements of the bike as a transport that’s mainly complementary to public transit.

All the same these conclusions are incompatible with a process of growing bike use which has begun already and cannot be reversed. New bike lanes respond less to a promotion of bike use than to resolving a problem of coexistance between bikes, pedestrians and autos, by applying this formule of having three “levels” of road use like previously described as the only reliable method of assuring the peaceful coexistance of different forms of transport. But using this very necessity to sell a (self-)deception wherein bikes will help resolve any traffic problems seems entirely utopic. Bikes don’t have the potential of being a predominant mode of transportation except through pedestrians switching to bike use, and in turn leading to a use of space that should not be underestimated, especially when talking about modal shares of 20% or more.

It seems at times that city hall is trying to play the cycling card as a method to accelerate the reduction of car use, something which could to a certain point be effective for the sole reason of reducing road space for cars in favour of bike lanes. But in no case should this be seen as a primordial element in this process (something that doesn’t even contradict the expansion of bike lane coverage), and priority must be kept on promoting public transit, which doesn’t always require just more investment, but also organizational measures of the kind described in the previous article.



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