Barcelona is bursting at the seams

Public transports in Barcelona are full to the brim

The rhythm of capacity expansion is too slow and a chronic collapse is at hand

Friday afternoon at the bus stop at Gran Via – Pau Claris. Within the melancholic light of the final rays of sunlight one can appreciate the crowds moving along Passeig de Gràcia, crowds that convert that crossing of Pg. de Gràcia and Gran Via into probably the most frequented one in the whole city. However, just a few metres further down Gran Via where the corresponding bus stop is situated, these same masses are not the to be found, as if they’d be vetoed from moving away from Pg. de Gràcia. However, there’s another mass of people accumulating here, this time constituted mainly of the locals, a mass that’s waiting for one of the many buses that stop there, albeit mostly the 7 and the H12. It’s an eclectic mixture of young students, parents with children, pensioners, workers and salary men, and even the occasional tourist with enough adventurous spirit to explore the regular bus lines.

As the display indicates the imminent arrival of buses 7 and H12 (which, as usual, have bunched up) the multitude at the bus stop has become quite substantial. The number 50 bus passes by, it leaves just as empty as it arrived, and finaly the two articualted buses serving lines 7 and H12 are here. These two buses seeme to be already at capacity, making it hard to fathom how the waiting mass of people will fit in. Luckily some people get off, leaving a small space to fit in the ones waiting at the stop. Two buses arrived, two sardine cans leave.

Not far from this popular stop other buses generate a curious news story: Neighbours of Ronda Sant Pere complain that their street has turned into an improvised bus terminal where, counting both urban and interurban buses, about 50 lines have a stop or terminal, according to a report by local TV Barcelona Televisió. Their complain oughtn’t be taken lightly as it is well known that Ronda Sant Pere has turned into an essential part of the somewhat improvised interchange that is Plaza Catalunya, and without a proper terminal the annoyance is made worse, like when these buses have to maneuver toward to park at their stop.

These two situations are symptomatic of a public transportation system that’s incoherent, inefficient and especially unable to cope with demand. Indeed, in Barcelona (at least in the central areas) the saturation of public transport has become a constant issue. The Metro is full and the buses are full. It’s something that’s been happening for many years, while significant expansions of capacity are few and far between. With the economic collapse of 2008 somewhat overcome the situation has become even more pronounced, generating a spike in demand, related partly to the reduction of road space, and without the improvements necessary to deal with these masses. The New Bus Network, locally known as “Nova Xarxa Bus” (NXB for short), which seemed a reasonable project on paper, far from properly dealing with demand has only worsened problems. While breaking away with the previous scheme based largely on common trunk lines which combine several lines (and their capacity) that eventually branch off, the NXB distributes capacity more evenly along each corridor, creating a more equal supply, but at the same time disregarding areas with higher demand in favor of areas with lower demand, in another insufferable example of a lack of pragmatism in transport planning. (The solution, little more than an improvisation, has been to maintain conventional bus lines to compensate for this defect, which is clearly a capitulation to the limitations of the NXB model.)

The panorama in interurban transports isn’t much more enticing. The news of the annoyances generated by the many bus lines at Ronda Sant Pere isn’t but the weakest link in a domino-effect which starts with poor rail service, leading to an inefficient planning that overlays bus lines with rail lines (instead of using those very buses as feeders to the rail lines), and from there leads to a saturation of road space generated by those very buses, which have become almost essential as their service has become widely accepted as a service complementary to the rail lines. Thus, though a simple and provisional solution would be desirable, it makes little sense to assume as definitive this over-abundancy of buses running to the same places reached by the trains. It would mean accepting a model which essentially assumes efficient planning as impossible.

On the other side of the city, at the “upper Diagonal”, there’s another occurrence, which we could call the “funnel phenomenon”. In the stretch of Diagonal ave. which runs from Zona Universitaria (the university district) all the way to Francesc Macià square there is again a series of termini for a plethora of interurban bus lines, mostly running in the direction of the Baix Llobregat area serving cities like Sant Boi, Castelldefels, Igualada, Esperreguera, Manresa, Corbera, which are some of the most popular destinations among many others. Also at Francesc Macià square there is the terminus for the TramBaix tram system, the most used of both systems which carries about two thirds of the total of people travelling by tram. All of these transports flow towards either Metro line L3, which runs a vertical itinerary somewhat outside the city center leading most people to change over to lines L5 or L1, or one of the urban bus lines which run along the slowest and most saturated corridor, which is Diagonal ave. between Francesc Macià sq. and Pg. de Gràcia.

The continuous restrictions to motorized traffic in Barcelona, coupled with a reduction in purchasing power are leading to a steady increase in public transport demand. For some years now the tendency has not stopped showing an increase in demand, in 2016 the rise in demand for different public transports has been between 2 and 5%, a number that’s not to be taken lightly. However capacity expansion, at least at the central part of the system, is barely following suit to this rise in demand. The recent opening of nothing less than 20 kilometres of the L9sud Metro line (about as much as the whole of line L1) ironically far from helping to resolve this situation only worsened it, since the lacking the central portion of Metro line L9 makes it function only as a feeder to the already saturated transports in the city centre, emulating the same situation present with the tram systems. It seems hard to believe that we have not one but two rail systems that are split, the L9/L10 Metro lines and the trams. The bet on bicycles by part of city hall, though positive in its own regard, is not in the very least a solution to these global mobility issues, since by type of itinerary and user base its demand doesn’t overlap significantly with the current and potential public transport user.

It is urgent that measures be taken immediately to start dealing with what could soon be a chronic collapse, a constant overflowing of public transport that generates a situation comparable to what happened in post-war Barcelona: insufficient transports, overcrowded, lacking investment. This kind of situation erodes the citizens’ trust in public transit, just as it happened in the post-war days, something that would be disastrous in a society that’s already not very trusting of public transit services. This prediction will not come along right away, we’re talking of a time span of 5-10 years of maintaining the current tendency, however measures that would be taken wouldn’t really be effective right away, but instead also take some time to be effective.

Over the next weeks we at BCN Movilidad intend to introduce a series of ideas, as we did with the Pere IV corridor, suggesting possible measures that could be taken into account to deal with the most immediate needs. Among these proposals we will emphasize the potential of tram expansions as a transport with high capacity that would supplement the Metro whose potential is almost exhausted, and with a cost much more manageable than Metro expansions; and also rail expansions which, though of a relatively large scale would also mean an important return on the investment.

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