Thirty years ago everyone in China rode bicycles; today it’s all cars. Thirty years ago Western cities were clogged with cars, but today city planners would prefer it if everyone were on bicycles. This dichotomy has led to two vastly different ways to solve a common urban problem. China is tackling vehicular congestion with their Transit Elevated Bus, which relies on technology and engineering to sail over traffic. Barcelona, on the other hand, is trying to solve the problem with a radical city planning approach.
Noisy, polluted Barcelona’s plan is to cut traffic by 21% by converting more than half of the streets to a different purpose than serving cars. They’re doing this by making what are called superblocks (superilles in Catalan). Creating a superblock does not entail new construction, but instead is a novel way of repurposing existing space.
What they do is take a square of nine blocks, allowing the roads on the perimeter to retain their original function, but changing what the interior streets allow. Those streets trisecting the 3×3 superblock have their directions of travel altered, as you see in the image below right.
Residents and deliverypeople will be allowed to drive on these interior roads, but only in the directions indicated, and only at a snail-like 20 kph (12 mph) or slower. By looping the permissible direction of travel, the interior streets become impossible to use as shortcuts; anyone turning onto one will only be looped back around to their earlier position in traffic.
These largely vehicle-free interior streets, then, will provide the space for what the city planners want: For children to play, bicycles to wind through, people to walk, families to socialize.
Car owners among you will instantly see an issue. If we look at a superblock as the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, imagine you are driving home from your office, which is located northeast of Greg Brady’s head, and your parking garage is situated between Alice and Peter. You’ll have a hell of a time circumnavigating the superblock every day.
And that is precisely the point. The city’s plan calls for complementing the superblocks by adding 300 kilometers of bicycle lanes throughout the city, while ramping up comprehensive bus service such that “anyone will be less than 300 metres from a bus stop at any time – and average waiting times will be of five minutes anywhere in the city,” according to city official and superblock proponent Salvador Rueda. The temptation to ditch the car will be high.
It will become even higher during phase two of the plan, when the interior speed limits will be halved to 10 kph (6 mph) and curbside parking will be done away with on these interior streets. (Off-street garages will be constructed to serve those who absolutely require a vehicle, but they are bound to be pricey.)
The plan is not perfect, and delivery truck drivers are likely to be miserable, but something must be done about the choking traffic. And once Phase Two kicks in, that’s when the plan’s endgame will come into view. As reported in The Guardian,
“We need to win the street back,” says Janet Sanz, city councillor for ecology, urbanism and mobility, who emphasised the need to encourage social cohesion, coexistence and human exchanges.
“This plan sums up the essence of urban ecology,” Sanz adds. “Our objective is for Barcelona to be a city in which to live. Also, as a Mediterranean city, its residents spend a long time on the streets – those streets need to be second homes, or extensions of one’s residence, at all times … Public spaces need to be spaces to play, where green is not an anecdote – where the neighbourhood’s history and local life have a presence.”
Perhaps the best part of this plan is that it is relatively low-cost. Adding bicycle lanes, changing signs and increasing bus service is bound to be cheaper than, say, engineering a new type of hulking vehicle and building a track for it. And the superblock plan is not a twinkle in city planners’ eyes; it has been approved, and is being enacted, with the first superblock to be designated within Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood. Over the next two years, nine superblocks will dot the city in different locations. The planners are taking an experimental approach and will rely heavily on feedback from citizens.
The entire process is being conducted in nine areas at a different pace, through what Sanz called “tactical urbanism” – a gradual trial and error method of sorts, with initial measures such as changing road signs – and with an initial budget of €10m (£7.9m). Now it is time to “go from theory to action”, she says.
…Many experiments, like car-free days, have…been conducted in districts like Sant Martí, which will act as the main guinea pig for superblocks. Its city councillor, Josep Maria Montaner, says it has been done in close consultation with groups of neighbours “and it will continue to be so. Neighbours need to experiment it and try the new spaces, little by little – and we hope many of the ideas for how to use them will come from them”.
If the plan works well, Barcelona could have a lot more than nine superblocks.