Moving Forward in Barcelona

Touring from Zürich to Barcelona would have required at least two or three weeks of biking and so I booked a flight. I left for the Zürich airport with plenty of time to spare, but was still nervously checking my watch throughout the tram ride there. I made it to my gate early, boarding pass in hand, and stared on to the tarmac while an odd sadness settled over me. It was similar to the sadness my dad and I felt as we were speeding down the French highway together watching our beloved—though sometimes fickle—bicycle route disappear. I knew that I wanted to visit Barcelona and I knew that flying made sense because I was running out of time in the EU, but I felt myself wavering. I took in the smell of expensive perfume from the nearby duty-free shop and looked around at the busy, important-looking people shuffling through the brightly lit airport. I imagined that most of them had time constraints, stressful deadlines, and consuming matters to contend with when they arrived at their destinations. I’ve been one of those people. I’ll be one of those people again. But, for the last few months I’ve been moving at a different speed. My decision to fly felt like a betrayal to a form of travel that had become so core to my purpose, my sense of self, and my happiness over the last few months. It wasn’t the brown steel frame, pedals, and seat of my bike that I was suddenly missing. It was the self-sufficient feeling I had when I got on my bike in the morning with my tent, sleeping bag, water bottles, and map. It was the knowledge that I would visit towns and places I never would have if I wasn’t on a bike. It was the human-paced speed of cycling that allowed me to cover significant distances while still engaging all my senses.

Air travel is so practical and, of course, fast. Speed has become so important to us in all aspects of life and yet I’ve come to appreciate the relative slowness of cycling. It doesn’t always offer immediate rewards, but arriving at a destination after several days on a bicycle feels a little like sitting down to eat a satisfying meal that required hours of careful preparation. It’s a luxury that I won’t always be able to enjoy regularly, and maybe part of what I was feeling was the acknowledgement that my trip was nearing the halfway point. When times are hard we often remind ourselves that the struggles will pass, but lately I’ve found myself considering the “this too shall pass” proverb when I’ve been the happiest. Everything is temporary to a certain degree: emotions, health, lifestyles, and our time in a certain place.

I felt like a chapter of my trip was ending when I got on the plane. I know we don’t live our lives in crisp chapters, but that’s what it felt like to me. I was acknowledging the passing of time and the fact that a set of experiences were behind me now. In any case, I reminded myself that pushing forward and accepting the new set of experiences was all I could do.

Just a few hours later, thanks to the miracle of air travel, I was happily walking barefoot on the beach in Barcelona as evening approached. The beaches were still crawling with people who were showing signs of having spent the entire day under the powerful, energy-sapping Mediterranean sun. Tired parents were slowly packing up towels, umbrellas, beach toys, and coolers while children darted in and out of the water with a frenetic urgency, unable to give up the beach for the day. Smaller children seemed on the brink of tears—clearly exhausted, probably hungry, and itchy from the layers of salt, sand, and sunscreen caked on to their soft skin. Many women were topless; from pudgy, old abuelas splayed out on their towels to taut, tan, and attention-seeking 20-somethings.

There are a lot of bike shops for tourists here that offer bicycle tours of the city, but I walked around for a little while looking for a smaller shop where I could talk to someone about biking in Barcelona. I found a funny little shop called, strangely enough, My Beautiful Parking. It had all the markings of a sub-culture bike shop with a Critica Massa (Critical Mass) poster on the front window, and other stickers that said things like, Los cyclistas lo hacemos mejor (Cyclists do it better). They had a nondescript, slightly funky beach cruiser they said they could rent to me for a good price and I decided to take it even though the front fender was held on with a piece of string. I figured the bike might help me pass for a local and, if nothing else, at least I didn’t need to worry too much about it getting stolen. They call the shop My Beautiful Parking because they offer secure parking for bikes.

My Beautiful Parking shop and Camilo.

People who live nearby can buy a monthly or weekly pass and are able to drop off and pick up their bikes as they please from the basement of the shop by using a key card. Barcelona is a very dense city with 1,600,000 inhabitants in a 101 km2 area.  Barcelona’s 15.3 inhabitants/ km2 puts it well ahead of even Copenhagen (6,141.5 inhabitants/km) and Amsterdam (3,506 inhabitants/km2)in the urban density competition. Space is coveted in Barcelona and living spaces are small. Secure bike parking not only prevents your bike from getting stolen, it also frees up space in your apartment.

I hung out at My Beautiful Parking for a while talking with a guy about my age, Camillo, who works there. He plays bike polo, cycles everywhere he goes, and, I quickly learned, thinks Barcelona has a long way to go before utility cycling is viable for most of the population. He believes that the weather and the density are the two primary reasons Barcelona is a good place for biking.

Bicing—the bike share program with a fleet of 6,000 bikes and 420 stations—has also been like a shot of steroids for the biking scene in Barcelona. Just a few years ago biking wasn’t even part of mode split calculations and now about 2.3 percent of all trips in Barcelona are on a bike. Yesterday I spent a few hours at the City of Barcelona’s transportation office speaking with Miquel Ruscalleda who directs and promotes the city’s cycling efforts.

He’s proud of Bicing—and he should be.

Year:                      Number of daily trips by bike in BCN:

2003                       31,598

2004                       33, 182

2005                       35,006

2006                       47, 561

2007                       86,406

2008                       97,139

The Bicing bike share program, as you’ve probably already guessed, started in 2007 and was responsible for tripling the number of trips taken by bike between 2003 and 2008. Currently 46% of the people you see on bikes in Barcelona are on the bright red Bicing bikes, but, at least according to my bike shop friend Camillo, more and more people are also buying their own bikes for use in the city.

That’s the whole point. Bicing is intended to be an introduction to utility cycling for residents and then the city hopes that happy Bicing users will actually choose to buy their own bikes. Bicycle purchases have gone way up in Paris since Velib started (2 million bikes were purchases since Velib started) and the same things is happening in Barcelona.

A little practical information about how Bicing works. You must be a member of Bicing to use the bikes and you can register online or at the Bicing office downtown. Only people with a Barcelona address can be members and it costs 35 Euros for a yearly subscription and your Bicing swipe card. The first 30 minutes is free and then you are charged 0.50 Euros for each additional 30 minute segment until you reach the 2 hour mark.

Rental stations all have maps showing other close stations in case there are no bikes available.

You aren’t supposed to use the Bicing bikes for more than two hours and if you do they charge you 3 Euros an hour and will revoke your membership if you exceed the 2 hour limit too many times. There is a very good iPhone app (I tested  it) that shows you where the closest stations are and how many bikes are available. There are trucks, like Paris, that move bikes from station to station to accommodate demand, but I have gone by some stations with no bikes. Sometimes the trucks can’t keep up with demand.

Barcelona is situated on a hill and, not surprisingly, more people end up using the Bicing bikes to get from the elevated peripheral neighborhoods to the low-lying downtown beachfront than vice versa. Theft hasn’t been much of a problem and Mr. Ruscalleda explained that the locking mechanism on the Bicing bikes is better than the Velib locks. In order to return your Bicing bike you have to pick the bike up so the front wheel is off the ground by about 10 inches and then insert two prongs on the front of the bike into two matching holes on the docking rail. It’s very obvious if the bike is locked or not. High theft rates in Paris were in part due to Velib users inadvertently leaving the bikes unlocked at the rental stations. Also, the Bicing bikes were designed so that the components (parts) of the bikes would be incompatible with most private bikes, hence reducing the temptation to strip the bikes for parts.

Bicing is used by all segments of the population and 59% of Bicing users are over the age of 30. The program doesn’t offer helmets and helmets are not required within the city. (However, if you travel in between cities by bicycle in Spain you must wear a helmet.) Mr. Ruscalleda told me that the city consulted a few different experts on the matter of helmet-use before launching Bicing and they determined that helmets did not make sense in an urban environment. What resonated most for Mr. Ruscalleda from their helmet research was a disturbing finding showing that drivers treat cyclists with helmets on in a more dangerous, aggressive manner than cyclists going helmet-free.

The “safety in numbers” phenomenon has also been seen here in Barcelona.  Although accidents have increased slightly in absolute numbers, the number of accidents in proportion to the number of bicycle trips has decreased. Cyclists had a .008 percent chance of being in an accident in 2005 and the rate has dropped to around .005 percent presently.

Barcelona’s transportation department created a special zone in the downtown core called the Area Verde (Green Area) where there are much higher parking fees in place (3 Euros/hr) to finance Bicing.  Bicing was designed, implemented, and is managed by Clear Channel Outdoor. JC Decaux apparently considered competing for the contract, but didn’t submit a proposal to the City of Barcelona. Mr. Ruscalleda didn’t know why JC Decaux didn’t propose. Clear Channel Outdoor has branded their service, SmartBike, and they are in direct competition with JC Decaux’s CycloCity service.

Clear Channel Outdoor gets paid a flat fee to manage the program, unlike in Paris where JC Decaux receives rights to advertising space. Wikipedia says that Clear Channel gets 2.2 million Euros a year to manage the program, but Mr. Ruscalleda said that was incorrect.  He thought it was closer to 15 million Euros a year, however, he didn’t have the exact number. (I’ll update the post if I can track down the number.) A new mayor was just elected in Barcelona and during his campaign he talked about ways to lower the cost of Bicing. There is speculation that the new mayor will renegotiate the reminder of the 10-year contract with Clear Channel Outdoor so that part of their compensation comes from the rights to the advertising space on the 420 rental stations and on the 6,000 bikes. The Spanish government, like the US, is cash poor right now so opportunities to get popular public services in exchange for outdoor advertising are likely looking more and more attractive and politically palatable.

Barcelona has also made some good progress with bicycling infrastructure and many of the advancements have been fairly low-cost. You can look forward to Barcelona Part II tomorrow. Here are a few other pictures to give you an idea of what I’ve been up to.

Basílica de la Sagrada Família (designed by Antoni Gaudi). The pillars are supposed to look like tree trunks and make you feel like you're in a forest.

If you've seen the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop you might recognize this Space Invader street art. Space Invader was all over Paris too.

Gracia Street Festival. Each street in the Gracia neighborhood competes to have the best decorated street.

Antoni Gaudí's bathroom from 1906-1926.

Parc Güell

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