On your bike: Barcelona’s cycling boom

Number of trips in the city soars as bicycle-path network grows 20% in the space of a year-and-a-half

Clara Blanchar

These are happy days for bike lovers in Barcelona. Even the traffic jams on cycle paths and problems finding a place to park a two-wheeler are little more than signs of how good things are. The figures tell the story: the city’s bike-path network has grown 20% in a year-and-a-half, and there are now 25,000 parking spots for bicycles. At the same time, the number of trips taken on bikes grew 14% in 2016 – triple the growth seen in previous years.

A bike rider in Barcelona's Plaza de Tetuán.
A bike rider in Barcelona's Plaza de Tetuán.CARLES RIBAS

The infrastructure boom pushed by Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau is partly responsible. The left-wing politician has promised to triple the city’s cycle path network and 25 kilometers have been added so far during her time at the helm, with a further 62 kilometers planned. But the story goes back to last century: the first bike paths were laid out in the city in the 1990s on cobblestone streets that still had rails from the old tram system. The real turning point was the introduction in 2007 of the public bike-hire scheme known as Bicing. Initially the scheme counted on 600 bicycles. Now that figure is 6,000.

Some experts argue the new two-way bike paths in Barcelona are too narrow

In other words, Colau has only applied a little more pedal power to promoting the two-wheeled form of transport in a city that – with its pleasant climate, manageable distances, lack (mostly) of hills and environment-conscious citizens – has all the ingredients to be a cycling paradise.

Sometimes, in fact, it seems the real question is why the city has needed so long to take to cycling, and a closer look at the figures puts a slightly different spin on its development in the Catalan capital. Only 2% of all trips in the city are taken on a bike – light years from the 40% made on public transport, the 26% involving cars and the 32% of journeys made on foot.

“[Cycling] is the fastest-growing mode of transport, but the percentage is still very low and we have a lot of room for growth,” says the city’s councilor for transport, Mercedes Vidal.

Compared to Madrid, Barcelona is amazing for cyclists Rafa Vidiella, editor of cycling magazine ‘Ciclosfera’

Vidal points out that the current administration of Colau is actually “following the road map of the Urban Mobility Plan approved during the previous city legislature,” when the now-defunct Convergence and Union party was in power. That plan set a target of 2.5% of all trips to be taken by bicycle in 2018.

“It is essential that we move on from the idea of creating bike lanes along certain main routes and think about the network as a whole with everyone having a path near their house and their destination,” explains the transport chief.

Changes in the city’s cycling culture have been welcomed by cycling lobbies and clubs, with Carles Benito of the Bicycle Club of Catalonia (Bacc) putting the increased popularity of bike-riding down to the “snowball effect” of increasing the bike path network but also to a rise in “cycling culture, stores and events” and to the creation of the so-called mar-montaña (sea-to-mountain) routes. Benito also welcomes new rules that will see vehicles such as Segways having to use bike paths.

Only 2% of all trips in Barcelona are taken on a bike, while 32% are made on foot

But there have also been complaints about the new bike lanes. Albert Garcia of cycling group Amics de la Bici (Friends of the Bike) and Esther Anaya, a researcher on cycling at Imperial College London, both argue the new two-way bike paths are too narrow. Anaya, however, has praised Barcelona for making data on its cycling network publicly available, thus allowing universities to carry out studies the city perhaps can’t afford.

But for Rafa Vidiella, the editor of cycling magazine Ciclosfera, it is all positive. “Compared to Madrid, [Barcelona] is amazing,” he says, noting the city is home to 20,000 folding Brompton bikes – more, per capita, than any other city in the world.

The flip side of cycling in Barcelona

Bad riding behavior, bicycle thefts (there are no official figures) and the loss of parking spaces as a result of the creation of new cycle paths are among the chief problems with Barcelona’s cycling boom, as identified by experts. Carles Fernández, secretary of the city’s Taxi Union, notes there is a problem with “undisciplined riders using road lanes set aside for buses and taxis when they are not allowed to.” The riding of bikes on footpaths is also an issue but government plans to ban the practice have been put on hold until the cycle path network has been tripled. In terms of lost parking spaces, City Hall has responded by saying only 600 of 130,000 spots will go.

English version by George Mills.

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