Barcelona’s innovative Superblocks, perhaps the best urban traffic-reduction plan in recent years, are drawing criticism from regular citizens. Not surprisingly, the whiners are drivers, and their problem is that driving around their neighborhood streets has gotten a lot harder. Perhaps these folks don’t understand the meaning of “traffic reduction.”
The Superblocks exploit Barcelona’s grid street plan, which covers much of the city, and is already one-way in most places. They take a nine-block square and reflow traffic within it. Cars can drive around the perimeter as usual, but if they enter the Superblock then they get looped back out on to the same street they came from. This diagram, from BCN Ecologia, shows the simple idea clearly:
Traffic inside the blocks is limited to about five miles per hour, and street-level parking is prohibited. Pedestrians are given priority, but traffic can come in and out for access. Barcelona has also redesigned its bus network into lines that run horizontally and vertically along the grid, making it easy even for visitors to find their way around. The idea is to take what is a noisy, pedestrian-hostile stressful section of the city and make it pleasant, while also cleaning up the city’s dirty air.
So far, there are four Superblocks (Superillas in Catalan), with plans to cover the whole city with them by 2018. And car drivers are pissed. They don’t like their new, cleaner, and more peaceful neighborhood streets. Of the four current Superblocks, three have been remodeled with playgrounds and other human-friendly changes, while one, in the Poblenou district, has so far only had its traffic rerouted. This is the one that’s causing the trouble.
Earlier in January, 100 residents , saying that they have “brought more problems than solutions.” Journeys within the Superblocks are taking up to three times as long as before. “Now I need 20 minutes more to get to work,” one resident, Francesc Abad, local newspaper Ara. “I just drove 400 meters more to park the car, and that’s not going to help pollution,” said another.
Perhaps these people shouldn’t have taken the car in the first place? Barcelona is an extremely walkable city. I lived there for 10 years, and saw that the car is just about the worst way to get around the city. Motor scooters are the fastest way to travel, followed by bikes and public transit. Cars are already inconvenient. Superblocks are just trying to finish them off for the good of everybody.
You might notice that all the negative comments come from drivers. A catering business, for example, says that it now needs half an hour to make deliveries that previously only took five minutes. Even if that’s not an exaggeration, then delivery businesses already have a model to learn from, in their own city. The Ciutat Vella, or Old Town, which makes up Barcelona’s heart, has many streets that are either closed to traffic or are too narrow to allow cars. Deliveries there are made by parking up on a wider perimeter street and using a hand truck. Parcel deliveries are often made using electric cargo bikes, and mail is delivered using rolling handcarts.
But perhaps the most pathetic complaint raised by the Association of People Affected by the Poblenou Superblock is that, says spokesperson Jordi Campins, the reduction in traffic has led to a “desertification” of the center of the block, and has divided the neighborhood between “supporters and detractors.” Clearly, in Campins’s view, those pesky supporters would stop fighting him if only the Superblock were abolished.
And let’s not forget that the protesters protested the blocking of streets by–that’s right–blocking off a street.
If you want to clean the air in your city, and promote alternative forms for transport, then you have to make it difficult to use a car. Some people may stop driving and take to bikes, but not many. Barcelona already has world-class public transit, and still people clog the streets with automobiles, so they need a painful poke to force the issue. And of course people hate change, which is why the drivers in Poblenou object to this slight reduction in their convenience.
While only four Superblocks are in place, Barcelona’s mayor, social activist Ada Colau, seems to have enough political will to actually cover the whole city by 2018. Then again, once the momentum has been gathered from early successes, blocking off roads is a pretty simple task. Perhaps the hardest part has already been done.