Every day I take a walk to our favorite bakery to buy fresh bread, and every day I have to side-step dozens of motorcycles parked on the pavement. Often they hog so much space there’s only a meter gap for pedestrians to squeeze through between them and the buildings.
Barcelona is constantly referred to as one of the top smart cities in Europe, and it is the fourth most popular destination in Europe, after London, Paris and Rome.
But despite its popularity, Barcelona never shown up on any list of most walkable cities. No surprise here: It is hard to walk even a 100 meters without having to dodge motorbikes, sidewalk cafes, and other obstacles like flower shops, newspaper stands, etc.
Riding a bicycle is almost as challenging. The city is proud of having one of the most successful bike-sharing programs in the world, Bicing, with nearly 100,000 users and over 100 km of dedicated bike lanes. But those lanes are constantly being invaded by motorcycles, blocked by cars or used for loading and unloading. On top of that, the Bicing stations are frequently blocked by delivery vans who have decided they make convenient parking spots.
Last week I went downtown for a conference on renewable energy. I walked most of the way (about 4 km) but I was running late so took a Bicing bike to get there faster. When I was using one of the dedicated bike lanes near the center two cars got into a minor accident on the road next to me. After the drivers stopped and assessed the damage they decided to “park” in the bike lane to do the paperwork. There was no question about it, it was the natural thing to do.
Motor vehicle owners feel the city is theirs to do as they please. There is little respect for pedestrians or cyclists. Meanwhile, the police are nowhere to be found, and if you call them for parking violations, which I have done it a few times when I thought the situation demanded it (their call center reps are always polite and friendly), they rarely appear.
In many areas of the city there are no bike lanes at all, so cyclists are allowed to use the sidewalks if they are wider than 5m. But with most sidewalks “occupied” by parked motorbikes and sidewalk cafes it is difficult enough for pedestrians to navigate through, never mind cyclists.
Recently the city, with the usual pomp and circumstance, inaugurated the new wider pedestrian areas in Avinguda Diagonal and Passeig the Gracia, the main shopping streets, which now ban motorbikes from parking on their sidewalks. But those are streets where few people live and are full of expensive shops and tourist attractions. Just one block away the situation remains the same.
Barcelona needs to change its attitude about cars and motorbikes. It needs to become more pedestrian friendly across the city, ensuring that people have the necessary space to walk, and not just in the areas of massive tourist traffic, such as Ciutat Vella (the Old City).
There is hope. Recently, the city council approved the new urban mobility plan, two years delayed, which gives priority to pedestrians and cyclists, reduces the use of private vehicles, and phases in a ban on motorcycles parking on sidewalks.
Some day soon, I hope to see my city on the list of walkable European cities. In two weeks we are supposed to have a new mayor (pending the vote of the city council), to whom I wish the best in her new job. I hope she makes creating a truly pedestrian city a priority — a place where everyone, residents and visitors alike, can enjoy walking and public transport as the main ways to get around.