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How Barcelona is slowly becoming a cyclist's city

While only 3.5% of Spaniards cycle every day, in one year- 2007- daily use in Barcelona jumped by 81%. Most would credit this startling rise to the success of the city’s bikesharing program, Bicing, which was implemented that same year, but there are other factors at play.

Barcelona has never let the car completely dominate public spaces. Here, 75% of public space is devoted to people, and increasingly to bicycles as well.  Over the past decade the city has slowly been building up cycling infrastructure by adding bike lanes and reducing speed limits.

Fighting for respect… and more bike parking

Spaniards may not have the bicycle culture of Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but they believe in the idea. According to a 2008 study, 90% believe that the government should encourage much more the use of cycling, mainly through the construction of infrastructure and through the use of campaigns that educate citizens that cyclists have the same rights as cars and walkers.

Haritz Ferrando Lebraud has spent the past decade working toward this type of change and awareness. In 2000 he founded the Bicycle Club of Catalonia (BACC) which campaigns in schools, universities and at public events and works so that “the bicycle is respected as a means of transport”. They attempt to be the voice of cyclists by fighting for infrastructure and services to make their lives easier. They’ve improved the ease of intermodal transport by opening up more bicycle+train options in Catalonia, as well as securing 700 new bike parking spots in Barcelona due to one of their studies.

On becoming one of “the most bike friendly cities”

While Barcelona now occasionally makes the list of most bike friendly cities in the world, Ferrando says that when he started his organization things were much more difficult. Now that “cycling is on the agenda of politicians”, Ferrando has become a public figure in Barcelona.

We visited the BACC headquarters to talk to him about bikesharing , slowing down cars, the Barcelona biking model and what other cities without a cycling culture- i.e. those in America- can learn from their experience.

“Public bikesharing systems is one of the main topics now in Spain. It’s interesting to see how Spain is the country in Europe with the least users of cycling, that’s a fact, but at the same time this public bike system is very, very popular in Spain as well.

We see the public bike system as a starting point to promote cycling. They begin with a public bike system and then they say now we need cycle lanes, now we need parking places, now we need someone who can manage all these things.”

faircompanies: Were you involved in the very beginning of Bicing?

“We were involved as promoters of the idea, but then the city of Barcelona decided themselves to implement the system. They said maybe in the first year of Bicing that maybe we’ll have 15 thousand users and that will be a success and they doubled or tripled this amount. So it’s been a real success. And it’s a fact that after 1 year the number of cyclists in Barcelona had doubled. It has helped to introduce very quickly the bicycle culture. We often say in Spain we lack a bicycle culture so we can wait 20 years or we can wait in a shorter time thanks to this kind of systems, or this kind of programs to set a trend.”

Did you feel like Barcelona in particular was a city that was well suited for a program like this?

“Yes. It’s quite suited because of the density [Barcelona is one of Europe’s most dense cities with 15,969 people/km2]. Density is one of the factors for success. So we have short distances, a lot of people living in the same place so the distances are short. That’s an important point. So Bicing helps to go from one point to another in a short time. The second factor is it’s not a hilly city. Only some parts of the city are difficult for cycling so almost all the city can be cycled with no problem.

Also there’s a background of 10 years. Ten years before Bicing there was already a bicycle policy with cycle lanes with a cycle commission working to do promotions so there was already some work done to help with the success of Bicing.

Also the financial system is important. In some cities, in almost all cities, like Paris, Lyon, Sevilla, the system is paid with advertising and this kind of contract doesn’t help to give the system the real label of a public system because you don’t know exactly how much it costs because there’s hidden information. But in Barcelona it’s very clear: the city pays” [The city finances the system- costing 13 million euros annually- through parking fees, member’s dues and a partnership with sponsor Clear Channel].

How did Bicing effect the city? Are these measures like reduced speeds and bike lanes because of Bicing?

“No they’re from before. The city of Barcelona had already set a target of reduced car use so Bicing is one measure, but there are other important measures. The green zone. There is almost no free parking in Barcelona, you have to pay everywhere. So that has helped reduce the amount of cars coming into Barcelona, I think 10 or 15% something like that.

We have also in Barcelona an important consensus for mobility and also a commission, a mobility commission that helps put all the actors together and find agreements. So we are there representing the cyclists. But there are also people there representing the taxi drivers and the motorists. And we try to find a common target and that’s important because sometimes the municipality needs to implement important measures that can be unpopular at times and if they have all the support of all the actors of mobility than the measure can do these kind of things.

For example in London this congestion charge I think these kind of measures will come sooner or later. I mean I think in the future all the cities will have these more constricted measures for cars because of congestion, because of pollution because the people want to have more quality of life.”

What do you see that the city needs to do so? What does the city need to do so the infrastructure can keep up?

“Now they are investing a lot in cycle lanes so we have a good cycle network. The next point is parking places. In Barcelona we have very few places to park in a secure way your bicycle. So I think the municipality should also have a program for parking bicycles so people can park their bicycle in a safe place.

I can imagine a public system of parking places. It can be an automatic system. There are already some companies selling these full automated systems to park your bicycle. It could also be these kinds of boxes, boxes on the street. You can rent a box and have it on the street.

I would also say the connections between cities needs to be improved because Barcelona as an island is very nice, but when you want to leave Barcelona there’s a huge problem. And there’s a lot of people living around the city.”

You mean better bike train connections?

“No, cycle lanes. Eight kilometer [5 mile] distances can be done very easily by bike. So that would be the next step to connect Barcelona with the cities around Barcelona.”

Do you think that there’s been more success with Bicing than in other cities because there was so much further to go, you talked about the lack of bicycle culture? I’m wondering if a bikesharing program would be the same effect in the U.S. where there isn’t a widespread bike culture.

“It’s difficult for me to compare Barcelona with a city in the states because there’s a very different culture there with car driving and all that. But if you compare Barcelona with cities in Europe you can see that this kind of system, a public bike system like Bicing , has been having a huge success in Barcelona, in Paris, in Lyon also, and they are cities with a low bicycle culture. But in cities in Germany and Amsterdam there was also a public bike system and it can not be a success because people already have their own bike so this kind of system will only be for tourists. It’s difficult to compare because there are many factors.

I think it’s also important if a city chooses to implement a bicycle system they have to put enough investment to be a success. It can’t be in a halfway. You have to really support it completely. We have in Barcelona 6,000 bicycles. If the municipality had only 2,000 bicycles it would be a failure, it wouldn’t succeed because you need a critical mass of public bikes to help people to go from one place to another, to guarantee availability of bicycles in every station.”

When you think about bicycle cities you think about Amsterdam, Copenhagen, is Barcelona getting there?

“Yeah, yeah. I think we will increase a lot. Now we have a share of cycling use of about 2% in Barcelona, in these cities you have 20 or 25% so we still have a ways to go. I think in Munich they’re about 10% so I can see in 5 years reaching 10%, I think that could be the target.”

I suppose there’s a lot of walking.

“These kind of cities like Barcelona people walk a lot. More than 30% of the people walk.”

What was the most surprising thing about the program for you? What surprised you the most about it when it was implemented?

“I remember the movie, the Time Machine, in this movie there is a scene of the movie that the man is projected in the future in New York and he lands in NY and he gets out of the machine and he sees many people cycling and there’s a kind of public bike system because there’s something automatic. So when I saw the Bicing for the first time I think we are already in the future, we are already in the future. For me it’s a very big step forward, to have a public system- respected system- to have these automatic bicycles there.

And also people riding for the first time. It’s important. People are introducing themselves to cycling for the first time thanks to Bicing. That is good, but also that gives some problems because these people often ride on the sidewalk but others don’t. So you have different profiles. People who are afraid and cycle always on the sidewalks and pedestrians are angry and so on. And you also see people from Bicing riding between cars with no fear. So that really helps to consolidate this bicycle culture.”

And you have an adult bicycle school, has that been popular with older people saying hey I want to learn?

“Yeah, most are older women- 40 or 50 years old- because they see others are riding. They come always with a lot of fear. They say my husband helped me but we didn’t succeed. And we say don’t worry we have a method and it’s very slow.”

What’s the oldest client you’ve ever had?

“The oldest one was 83.”

How did he do?

“He was in good condition and we were aware of it.”

We talked to Ramón Ferreiro [Bicing spokesman from Barcelona’s Center for Mobility] who said they’re going to reach 150 kilometers [93 miles] of bike lanes in the city and that’s it, they don’t plan to build more. Is that enough?

“No. They said once the ideal network it was about 300 kilometers [186 miles] of cycle lanes, but I don’t know exactly what is the top, but there is a top. We aren’t trying to cover the entire city with cycle lanes we think we need a cycle network and then you still can have, you should be able to cycle on normal streets with cars, but with this environment where cars can not go faster than 30 kilometers [19 miles/hour] or 20 kilometers [12 miles/hour], it depends. So we have to share the road in many cases.”

Do you think speed limits need to come further down?

“We think the city should be all a 30 kilometer zone area. In theory Barcelona is all a 30 kilometer zone; bylaws say that every street if you have only one lane for cars than you have to drive at 30 kilometer maximum, but no one knows that. That’s the beginning. And then you can have some streets where cars can go faster because there are special streets where cyclists can not ride there. But there are some streets and that’s all. And then I imagine the normal streets like this are 30 kilometer and then you have these residential areas where children can play on the streets and then it’s a 20 kilometer zone area.”

So there’s a bit of Utopian vision, it sounds nice, you’re taking back the city in a sense?

“But we are approaching this model. The city, we agree on that, we only disagree on the timing. The city is thinking in 10 or 20 years and we think in 5 years time. That’s the difference, but the idea is the same.”

And what’s that idea?

“That this city where the car is not the main priority. So the priority is inverted to people, cyclists and public transport and then the car.”

And you see that happening?

“Yes. I think yes.”