Barcelona tackles its traffic, pollution with parking policies and superblocks

Cities of the Future talks to Barcelona’s mobility guru, Mercedes Vidal, about how the high pollution levels that are pushing the city to rethink heavy traffic flows, provide faster more efficient public transport and hike up parking fees.

Last week, the city of Madrid had to trigger its high-pollution protocol Level 2 due to dangerous levels of NO2 in the city. That meant cars could not park in the center of the city — except residents in their assigned areas — and all access roads had a speed limit of less than 70 km/h (43.5 mi/h). If the situation continues Madrid will have to apply Level 3, which means only half of the cars will be allowed to circulate in the city.

Barcelona also has a serious pollution problem. While the city only exceeds the limits imposed by European regulations a few days per year, on any given day 44 percent of the population is exposed to NO2 levels that exceed the European rules. It has been estimated that the high pollution in Barcelona causes about 3,500 premature deaths each year.

Current Air Quality Situation — BCN Ecologia Urbana

While pollution was not a high priority for the city’s previous administration, former mayor Xavier Trias, with the support of most of the political groups in the city council, approved the new Urban Mobility Plan, which gives the new government the tools to tackle traffic, pollution, and reclaim road space for pedestrian use.

To better understand how the new administration plans to address those challenges, I sat down with Mercedes Vidal, Councillor of Mobility, and President of the Metropolitan Transport Authority of Barcelona.

Vidal, who is a newcomer to the city’s government, worked for nearly 10 years in the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona before being elected to the city council.

Mercedes Vidal

According to Vidal, the basis of the Mobility Plan is the Superilles (Catalan for Superblocks). After nearly 30 years of planning and many political hurdles, the superblocks are finally starting to be deployed in Barcelona, with the first one opened in the Poble Nou district in September. Over the next three years, Vidal says, the plan is to open around 10 new superblocks in different areas of the city. “We are going to increase space for pedestrians with superblocks and other pacifying strategies,” she said.

Janet Sanz Cid, a deputy mayor of Barcelona, described the Superblock program as “winning back the streets for the people.”

The full implementation of the Superblocks Plan (about 100 superblocks in all) will take much longer and won’t be completed during this city council’s term. Part of that is because the Urban Mobility Plan was approved three years later than originally drafted. The plan also needs to be adapted to demands, Vidal says, as some areas not originally included are requesting the implementation of superblocks to pacify their streets.

Public Transport

Vidal believes the superblocks are also key to fully implementing the new grid network for buses, which will serve to connect the whole city via high-capacity, energy-efficient buses. It will reduce the number of routes from 94 to 28, but maintain the same number of buses, so wait time will average less than five minutes.

Barcelona Hybrid Bus — Source: TMB

One of the key projects of this administration, Vidal says, is to join the two tram lines that run along different sections of Avenida Diagonal, a major thoroughfare that crosses the city. Trams can move many more people than bus lines and will help alleviate current traffic, noise, and pollution problems caused by the volume of cars, trucks and buses along Diagonal.

City for Bicycles

The Barcelona government is determined to promote cycling as one of the main mobility options around the city. Barcelona’s Bicing program is one of the most popular bike-sharing initiatives in the world, with nearly 100,000 registered users.

Bicing Station in Barcelona

The problem, Vidal says, is that many car drivers do not respect people riding a bike on the road, and that creates dangerous situations. Some drivers honk at cyclists, she says, which is absolutely forbidden, and complain about the number of people cycling on the roads in general.

Bicycles are the only mode of transport allowed to pass through Superblocks. And, while the city can’t implement all the planned superblocks during this administration, it intends to triple the kilometers of separated bike lanes around the city.

New Rules for Motorcycles

Barcelona is one of the cities in Europe with the most motorcycles. There are over 273,000 motorcycles (including scooters) registered, about 30% of all motor vehicles.

Motorcycles using the sidewalk to park in Barcelona

Generally speaking, Vidal says, motorcycles help to alleviate traffic in Barcelona, since four or five take the same space as one car. But they also cause other problems, such as parking and noise, and add significantly to the pollution problem.

Except in some designated areas, motorcycles are allowed to park on sidewalks as long as they leave a clearance of 2.5m for pedestrians. But that restriction is usually not enforced. The result is a culture where motorbikes occupy large proportions of the sidewalk, and some bikers even zip up the sidewalk as a shortcut when traffic is bad.

That’s about to change. Motorcycles can’t be parking on sidewalks any longer, Vidal argues. However, some areas of the city have such a high demand for motorcycle parking that even if all curbside parking were dedicated to motorcycles, there wouldn’t be enough. That is why, she says, the city is starting negotiations with private off-road parking lots to provide additional parking.

Using Parking as a Mobility Tool

One of the new measures the city will implement, starting in 2017, is to charge on-street parking prices based on the pollution level of each vehicle. In order to do that the city plans to change all the existing parking ticketing machines across Barcelona for new units capable of on-demand adaptive pricing, and advanced communications with both the city control center and the registry of motor vehicles. The new system, Vidal argues, will allow charging lower parking rates to less polluting vehicles such as plug-in hybrids, Euro-6 gasoline cars , and smaller cars with fewer emissions — 100% electric vehicles will continue to park free of charge.

Barcelona is slowly regulating the currently unregulated on-street parking space (about 50% of the existing spaces), giving priority to delivery vehicles and residents in the neighborhood.

“Private vehicles are using 60–70 percent of the streets. If we want to give preference to other modes of transportation, this can only be done by reducing the space for private vehicles.”

Although the width of the street may be fixed, Barcelona is using its renowned creativity to rethink mobility, bringing it down to the human scale and giving the city back to the people.

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