Steps toward the car-free city

I haven’t posted in a while because, frankly, I’m finding it difficult to make myself sit down and write, or even just stay indoors, in a city with so much going on, especially when it’s sunny and up to 20 degrees out! So, I’m compromising with myself by writing this from a cafe in the plaza near my hotel. 

Right from the train station I was welcomed with generous separated bike paths of various designs – alongside sidewalks, in the middle of the road, abutting the street with low mounds of cement to prevent incursion by cars, always with a bike signal at each crossing. And with a lot of street trees along the wider boulevards, it was a pretty pleasant ride. My hotel is located in the Gothic Quarter, not far from the station, but it took a while with frequent stops to check my map, especially once inside the labyrinth of narrow alleys. 

Being at least half country-girl at heart, the density and crowds felt a bit overwhelming at first. But after a few days I’m getting used to it.  Although there’s not a lot of space, there are also a lot of places that limit car traffic – whether by accident, as in the oldest parts of the city like the Gothic Quarter, built before cars, or by design, like the “super-block” retrofits (more on that below). Plazas, large and small, trees and pocket gardens also provide openings and a sense of softness and space in the otherwise angular network of alleys and six story buildings.

Just a Roman rampart I discovered walking to get morning coffee.

From noon onwards, and especially after dark, the streets around here are full of people, of all ages. Many roads are closed to cars altogether, and it’s difficult to imagine how so many people can fit onto narrow sidewalks in other places with similar density. There’s an eclectic mix of tourists and locals, hipsters and artists, panhandlers, families, backpackers and well heeled travelers. Schools are tucked in among the old buildings, given away by the sound of children playing in courtyards behind gates. I ate dinner in a cafe in the nearby Plaça Reial. I’m not sure the paella was the city’s best, but I chose it more for the ambiance and lack of car fumes. Anyone opposed to blocking streets to cars, and who likes to eat outdoors, I invite to choose between a roadside cafe and one next to a pedestrian plaza. With my own anecdotal experience as proof, car-free is clearly good for business. 

The next day, I set out on my bike in search of the “super-blocks” (a.k.a. superille, superilla, or supermanzana in Spanish). They are four square blocks that have limited car access and give priority to bikes and pedestrians. Intersections are re-designed with large planters that block cars and create new public spaces for locals to relax, play and meet. So far just a handful have been built, but they are working so well that the city has a bold plan to create over 500 throughout Barcelona. 

Although they’ve had a lot of recent media attention, it was surprisingly difficult to locate the darn things, since they aren’t marked on Google maps. After finally finding a poor resolution image of a map online to cross-reference, I went to Poblenou, which was the first super-block installed, and then to Saint Antonio, one of the most recent. The planning process is summarized nicely in this series, so I won’t reiterate, I’ll just share my impressions.

Having an appreciation for how tight public space is here, I can appreciate how an amenity like this could change the experience of a neighbourhood. Where most residents have no yard and few public parks, they now have somewhere to walk their dogs (I saw more than one dog perched atop concrete orbs), for kids to play, to meet each other, and to simply sit and watch the world go by. And of course with reduced traffic comes better air quality and more quiet. Cars are allowed but must yield to bikes and pedestrians, and traffic calming measures make high speeds impossible. As a cyclist, there’s an immediate sense of ease when you’re not worried about getting creamed by a car. 

In Saint Antonio, I got up my nerve and mustered my Spanish to ask a local his opinion of the project. It turns out an interview style conversation was ideal for my language level. I was able to ask simple questions and could understand most of his response – and not many questions redirected at me! 

Martín looked to be in his mid-30s, and was sitting on a bench, waiting for his girlfriend and her little boy who was playing on the kids’ climbing structures. He lives nearby, and has lived in Barcelona all his life. I asked if he liked the place with all the changes, and he said yes, it gives someplace for the kids to play and for people to enjoy being outside, while still allowing cars to get through. The city is really lacking space for these activities, he said. I asked if there were any problems at first, and he replied, yes, some people always oppose change, and were concerned about access for cars, but that has mostly passed. It was only completed about one year ago. 

I also took a ride out to one of the business districts to meet some people involved in renewable energy technology research, and got to experience some of the more modern bike infrastructure and saw some of the few high-rises in the city. Like in Montpellier, bold façades and solar screens are prominent. My other observation about micro-mobility here: lots of scooters and a well used bike-share program called Bicing (only for locals, otherwise I’d have given it a spin).

Solar shading! We’ll need more of this in Vancouver soon.

The neighbourhood I’m staying in can be noisy at night, with partiers roaming from the many bars, but at least it’s just human voices, and no engines and exhaust fumes. Here’s what it sounds and looks like on a Sunday morning from my room:

I’ll wrap up with a highlight: coming across a classical guitar performance, in the cloister of a medieval cathedral, by Alí Arango. Sublime! 

p.s. a few pics of La Familia Sagrida, cause it’s pretty mind boggling…