Lessons on Biking from Barcelona

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For a few days earlier this week, I was in Barcelona. While many people travel to other places and want to explore cultural things like museums and architecture, I like to get a feel for the city by bike. Barcelona is a great city for that, with amazing bike infrastructure.

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What Barcelona streets are like

Barcelona has two distinct styles of streets. Those that are narrow and intimate, which give you a distinctly Barcelona feeling, and extraordinarily wide streets, with plenty of space for all types of transportation. We’re not talking about a wide street like Lyndale, full of cars that are rushing and pedestrians waiting forever to cross. These wide streets are characterized by wide sidewalks, protected bikeways, and dedicated spaces for motor vehicles. Some of these streets have dedicated paths for taxis and busses. Some of the wide streets have a significant pedestrian boulevard down the middle, the equivalent width of two or three car lanes, with only one-way traffic lanes on the outsides. They vary widely, but the thing that remains the same is a feeling of human scale.

The bike infrastructure is amazing in its flexibility. There are many protected, on-street bikeways. Think of these as major bike thoroughfares, where you can get where you’re going quickly. Then, there are smaller side streets with protected bikeways either built onto the street or lined onto the wide walkway. This is not to mention the corridor-like streets that are rarely used by anyone but pedestrians. Bikes are welcome there too. There are bike signals at almost every intersection, and bike paths are painted red to alert motorists to spots where interactions might happen.

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Not only is it easy to get from one place to another, it can be incredibly pleasant to do so. Some bike paths open up to beautiful scenery, like the Arc de Triomf, a view of the city beyond, or the Mediterranean Sea. Views like these encourage cycling for pleasure, and not just for transportation.

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Barcelona has a bike sharing system that is only for locals, called Bicing. The bikes look a lot more nimble and light than our Nice Rides. They are very popular. I was curious about these, and have no shame in telling you I went on Tinder to bother the locals about what biking is like in the city. The one guy I chatted with says he uses the Bicing for everything.

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People don’t wear helmets. I think I saw one helmet in my time biking around. Most of the bikes are upright, and the biking infrastructure encourages efficient but safe transportation. You don’t feel like you’re competing with cars. You don’t feel the need to run a red light because the sensor is not picking up your bike at the intersection. Most people ride bikes that orient the rider more upright, but not all. Biking feels safer when there are protected bikeways, go figure.

What can Minneapolis learn from the Barcelona example?

  1. Multimodal transportation is the future: Designing streets to cater to many types of transportation is something we need to  do better. In Barcelona, there’s more infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit, which means that everyone, including motorized vehicles, travels faster and more safely. Taking away space from cars on the road to build protected bikeways encourages biking and decreases traffic by giving bikes their own space and encouraging more people to cycle.
  2. Our streets are not very pleasant: Even though the main Barcelona streets are wider than Minneapolis streets, they don’t feel bad. These streets feel like streets made for people, not cars.
  3. We should be more creative: There was no one formula for a multimodal street in Barcelona. Some streets have on-street protected bikeways, some streets use lined bike paths on sidewalks. Some streets have wide sidewalks for pedestrians, while others have large center boulevards for pedestrians. Some streets are closed to cars. We’re extremely limited in Minneapolis if we continue to operate under the assumption that every street has to allow for efficient transportation via car. What if we took away some streets from cars and gave those streets to pedestrians and bikes?
  4. Safer biking is good for tourism: If the biking didn’t feel safe and intuitive, even I, as an experienced cyclist, wouldn’t have done it. It’s pretty cool that visitors, who don’t really even speak the language besides some stumbling phrases picked up from a little time spent in Guatemala a few years ago, can feel comfortable biking.

What do you think? How can we improve the cycling infrastructure in Minneapolis to echo something that’s more efficient and more pleasant?

This post was cross posted at bikinginmpls.com.


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4 Responses to Lessons on Biking from Barcelona

  1. Keith Morris May 9, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    I’d prefer to see more “greenways” than just a parallel path off the side of an otherwise high-speed busy road that prioritizes suburban commuters over city residents. Taking out one street in North and converting it to a greenway isn’t going to affect peoples’ ability to drive quickly through the neighborhood. So why not another in NE, South, etc? Not having to deal with cars for the most part and having few stops as is the case with the Midtown Greenway is what we should be shooting for, though I also am a fan of Victory Memorial Pkwy in North which has more stops, but yes, we do have to stop ignoring those elephants in the room: Lyndale is just one of them and it’s a horrendous neighborhood district where it’s only safe during Open Streets and then goes back to being as unsafe as ever for the rest of the year.

  2. mplsjaromir May 11, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Love the article. Spain clearly has the best bicycle infrastructure in Europe. It works well for all people.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini May 11, 2015 at 9:52 am #

      I’m not saying I disagree with you (since I’ve never spent any time in Spain). Their infrastructure looks great in the photos and the one detailed overview on Seville. But mode share across major cities in Spain ranges in the single digits, while the Netherlands on the whole is ~25% with some cities exceeding 40% mode share. I’d be interested to see if this is because cycle culture hasn’t evolved yet in response to relative newness of the infrastructure or something else..

  3. MButler May 14, 2015 at 6:46 am #

    I spent 10 days in Barcelona in March. I didn’t ride a bike, but walked for miles. The biggest thing I noticed was that car drivers did not seem to feel that they owned the streets. Pedestrians and cyclists were considered just as “valid” as drivers. In fact, only once did I see a driver try to bully a pedestrian to hurry across an intersection. I’ve never felt more comfortable as a pedestrian. As a cyclist around Minneapolis, I don’t mind sharing the streets, but I do mind, greatly, drivers who do. To me, it’s more the mindset of who has a right to be on the street that’s most important. We have a long, long way to go here for both cyclists and pedestrians.