The Quiet Revolution of Vitoria-Gasteiz

Stepping off the train from Madrid in Vitoria-Gasteiz, a city of 252,000 in the Basque Country,  northern Spain, felt like stepping into an alternate universe. The doors of the station opened to a cool December evening. I walked down a wide street lined with large magnolia trees, interspersed with restaurant tables, and people strolling in small groups and couples. A couple of people on bikes coasted by. It was so quiet I could hear passing conversations. After the crowded streets and subways of Madrid, it was literally like taking a big breath of fresh air. What was so strange? No cars! 

Vitoria-Gasteiz has quietly set about transforming the city from a place dominated by cars, to one where people have room to move and breathe. Car access is strictly limited across much of a 50 hectare area in the city centre, with plans to expand these zones across the majority of the city. I couldn’t get enough of strolling around here, and it seems the residents feel the same way. In 2014, 54% percent of trips in the city were taken on foot and 12% by bicycle*. But beyond the numbers, there’s a sense of tranquility, efficiency and community in this area that should be experienced by everyone. It doesn’t feel radical, it just feels like what normal should be. 

* For context, in the City of Vancouver in 2014, 23% of trips were made by walking and 7% by bike; in Burnaby in 2018 they were 8% and 1% respectively.

A winter evening in the city square (video by Lise)

To find out what the city is doing, I met with Juan Carlos Escudero, who supports transportation policy implementation in the city, as the head of the Information and Innovation Unit at Centro de Estudios Ambientales of the Ayuntamiento de Vitoria-Gasteiz, a public agency owned by the City. He walked me through the story of the city’s ongoing journey toward a more walkable city, and afterward I explored some of the streets on foot and by bike. Although it was cold and raining, people were still out – albeit walking rather briskly – and I could easily imagine the streets and patio cafes full in the summer months. 

One of the most dramatic transformations in Vitoria Gasteiz is Sancho el Sabio street. Originally it had four driving lanes plus four parking lanes. Today, it hosts a tramway, wide pedestrian boulevards, separated bike paths, and just a single lane access for cars. 

Sancho el Sabio before its conversion. Source: Environmental Studies Centre Vitoria-Gasteiz 
Sancho el Sabio after its transformation. Source: Environmental Studies Centre Vitoria-Gasteiz 

Sancho el Sabio from the ground (photos by Lise)

What drove this transformation?

Juan Carlos explained that efforts to prioritize people over cars actually began in the late 1970s, led by a progressive mayor who remained in power for 20 years. Among other things, he audaciously had trees planted within the right of way of one of the city’s main streets by simply cutting holes in the asphalt – as Juan Carlos said, tactical urbanism before it had a name! These same magnolia trees have now grown large, and contribute to the peaceful ambiance on the street that I experienced on my arrival. Between 1976 and 1993, 20 streets and 4 hectares of the city were restricted to cars, many of which saw vehicle traffic of 25,000 cars per day before the conversion. 

Dsto Street with the Mayor’s magnolias (photo by Lise)

But with the growing societal trends of the day, these efforts weren’t enough to staunch the flow of cars into the city, and the mayor wasn’t able to realize one of his dreams, to convert the central city square surrounding la Virgen Blanca for pedestrians. The 1980s to early 2000s saw a steady increase in trips by car, declining walking, cycling and transit ridership, and a rise in car ownership – this despite the city’s compact form with the large majority of residents living within 3km of the city centre. 

New residential areas were also added at the city’s outskirts, and a new tram system was announced by the provincial government – although it offered potential benefits, it also had risks of being poorly used if not well integrated. With a commitment to the UN Local Agenda 21 in 1998, and creation of a new environmental plan with high level goals for sustainability mobility in 2002. City leaders recognized the need for major changes in its transportation system. Formally beginning in 2006, they set out to create a bold and integrated plan for the city to meet its sustainability goals. 

A plan with “teeth”

Many city plans are technical documents that gather dust on the proverbial shelf, while others are dismantled as soon as political leadership changes. Vitoria-Gasteiz’s mobility plan was different, Juan Carlos explained. A citizen’s forum provided a wide range of views and input to the plan, culminating in a Citizen’s Pact for Sustainable Mobility, approved by Council in 2007, which committed to carrying out the objectives of the plan, as well as monitoring its progress. At the outset, the plan established a “new hierarchy… in which the pedestrian is the main character, followed by the non-motorised methods of transport and public transport and, finally, the private vehicle.” 

As a result of the broad citizen engagement and support, the city’s mobility plan enjoyed support across political party lines, despite bold moves to de-prioritize personal cars that have proved to be sticking points in other cities. It is also highly popular with the public and businesses – Juan Carlos said one of the main criticisms the City receives is that they are not implementing the plan fast enough. It’s recognized to be good for business, as well as for health and daily living. 

A thorough evaluation after ten years of the plan’s implementation was carried out in 2016. Most indicators are pointing in the right direction, and overall the plan has been a strong success. 

Superblocks

Among the key outcomes enabled by the plan between 2006 and 2016 was creating a framework of super-blocks, a concept popularized by Salvador Rueda in Barcelona. (For some images and a video of a couple of Barcelona’s super-blocks, see my earlier post here.) It builds on the car-free streets that Vitoria-Gasteiz already had in place for decades, with a more deliberate and systematic plan. As Juan Carlos explained, super-blocks effectively create “mini cities” and public spaces within the city, and can actually improve the overall efficiency of a city, as well as daily life for its citizens. 

Super-blocks consist of areas of about 400m x 400m, within which pedestrians have priority. Roads spaces are re-allocated for public uses like playgrounds greenspace, car speeds are restricted to 10km/h and through-traffic is not allowed. Primary streets around the outside of the cells provide the main access for cars and public transportation, so access and circulation throughout the city is maintained. Bikes are accommodated with separated paths on primary streets, and can traverse the interior of the super-blocks, while yielding to pedestrians. One of the big benefits of super-blocks is that they cost very little – much can be done with paint, signage, tree planters and some street furniture, Juan Carlos explained.

Super-blocks can be woven into the fabric of the city; a regular grid is shown on the left, and a super-block conversion on the right, with primary streets replaced with cells of local pedestrian-priority zones. Source: Vitoria-Gasteiz CEA

Super-blocks are also welcomed by the people in Vitoria-Gasteiz, who recognize they help to make cities more safe and livable. For example, noise is reduced – Juan Carlos said population exposed to noise levels over the recommended ones by the World Health Organization have decreased in these areas by 50%. Hot summer temperatures are also moderated by greenspace and trees, and there is more public space for people on foot – around 70% instead of 20% in a typical street. People can really relate to these improvements. Juan Carlos said that in 2018 the City playfully brought in a fleet of classic cars and mock pavement markings as part of an exhibition to commemorate the pedestrian conversion. It was a wildly popular event, but he said some people were concerned the city was going to bring back the cars!   

There’s more…

Super-blocks are integral, but not the whole story in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Some of the other actions stemming from the city’s sustainable transportation plan over the past 13 years include: 

  • Replacing the poorly organized system of 19 bus routes – “spaghetti”, as Juan Carlos described them – with seven more efficient ones. 
  • Integrating buses, and a new tram network, carefully with active transportation. 
  • Adding escalators along steep slopes in the medieval centre (for both bikes and pedestrians), along with other measures to improve accessibility. 
  • A comprehensive parking plan that included creating new underground public parking facilities, and tripling the price of on-street parking. As a result, Juan Carlos said, almost by magic, the demand in the city centre for parking suddenly “evaporated”.  
  • Secure (covered, locked) public bike parking in strategic locations. This is particularly useful for electric bikes and cargo bikes, which are becoming more popular but can be difficult to store in many apartments. 
  • Ecological improvements alongside transportation infrastructure, including street trees, landscaping, and creation of a new stream within a redesigned road right of way. A prominent building, the Europa Congress Place Convention Centre, has an extensive green wall, contributing to public greenspace. These efforts complement the city’s long-running green belt project, creating ecological corridors and public trails across the city. 
Space for people and biodiversity: green wall and restored stream alongside new bike paths and sidewalks on Avenida Gasteiz (photo by Lise)

Looking ahead

The city is now consulting on the final draft plan for 2020 to 2030. It includes 54 actions with proposed “interventions”. These include improving and on the actions to date, such as additional traffic calming and reclaiming more public space in super-blocks; extending the tram system; and building more separated bike paths. 

There are also new modes and projects planned. An electric rapid bus line is currently under construction, 13 buses on a route encircling the city. A high speed rail line is also planned, to connect northern Spanish cities with France. Although it is a Spanish government project, the city is taking advantage of the trenching required to underground a 3.6 km section of vehicle roadway (at a level between the surface and the rail line), which will free up 9 hectares of land for public greenspace, with cycling and walking paths. 

Other innovative proposals include investigating the creation of urban commercial distribution centres, along with other programs to reduce large delivery truck traffic in central, residential and school zones. A Sustainable Mobility Services Centre is also proposed as a “one stop shop” for services including providing information, selling transit tickets, managing car-sharing programs, renting bikes and cargo-bikes, and selling bike and car parking passes. 

Finally, the plan also includes programs for electric vehicles, but Juan Carlos confirmed this is not a central element of the city’s strategy, and they have chosen to focus more on shifting to sustainable and active modes (and away from cars altogether). Nevertheless, reading almost as an afterthought in the next generation plan, the city proposes to install 40 public charging stations in 2020, and 80 by 2030, and to electrify the municipal fleet as well as the entire public transport system (tram, buses and taxis).

People friendly street in nicer weather (source: Vitoria-Gasteiz CEA, used with permission)

Take – aways   

As a former city staffer myself, I know it’s all too common for city staff and politicians to read case studies from other cities and think, “That would never work here”, because of this or that (it’s too hilly; it’s too cold/rainy here; we don’t have a “cycling culture” like in Europe; politics, car-culture etc.). In response, I would say, while the specific prescription and interventions will be different, there are still universal lessons that can be learned from the experiences, and successes to date, in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Here is my list. 

  1. Recognize the risks of the status quo; high and increasing car dependence hurts all aspects of society no matter the geographical location, while other risks may be unique to the locale. 
  2. Build on geographical and societal/political strengths; in Vitoria-Gasteiz these included the compact urban form, and the legacy of environmental political leadership. 
  3. Create plans with strong public engagement, with clear direction and quantifiable metrics, that can provide guidance for decades to come, regardless of changes in political leadership. Vitoria-Gasteiz’s plan, for example, clearly prioritized pedestrians, enabling transformative projects to de-prioritize cars, with relatively little public blowback. 
  4. Use low-cost pilot projects to test big ideas; super-blocks cost little to implement, and once installed, the reaction of the public and businesses can be gauged. Super-blocks may not be suitable everywhere, but with the right combination of density and street pattern there’s no reason they would not work in many cities in Canada.
  5. Integrate plans, transportation modes, and projects; in Vitoria-Gasteiz this included ensuring the public transportation system supported walking and cycling; and combining multiple benefits, such as stream restoration along with cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and undergrounding roadways with rail.  

For most people from North America, me included up until this trip, it’s difficult to imagine what a truly, and intentionally, walkable city is like. It’s a sudden freedom from a tension you didn’t know you were carrying, that sense of constant vigilance for your personal safety. Instead of car fumes you can smell freshly baked bread and dinner being served in the boulevard cafes. You can hear birds, children laughing, and a guitar being played in the distance. You feel inclined to look around at the surroundings and wander between shops and restaurants – on both sides of the street. You watch neighbours meet each other and stop to talk, and maybe in such a place you even meet other strangers. This human interaction is what defines successful city design, something that can’t be captured in reports and graphs. 

Here’s a video and some photos from my tour of Vitoria-Gasteiz. You’ll have to imagine it in summertime, until I’m able to return and depict (and enjoy) it at its best. Or better yet, especially if you’re a political decision maker, I highly encourage visiting yourself!  

A ride through the city centre to the medieval quarter (video by Lise)

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