For personal reasons, I have taken up residence in two cities. During the fall and spring university semesters, I live and work in Chicago, while I spend most of my summer in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain). I’ve been on this ride since 2001 but have lived in Chicago since 1992. Being born in the Netherlands, bikes and trains were part of my upbringing.
When I moved to Chicago, I had to grudgingly accept that, strapped for money and time, owning a car turned out to be the only way to meet my transportation needs for work and school. . Fortunately, a new job in 2003 made life without a car possible, and the car disappeared. In addition to seeing monthly savings, I got to know Chicago better, criss-crossing the neighborhoods on foot, bike, and public transit for commuting, shopping, and recreation. It also made me realize the many obstacles that living without a car faces. I discovered Barcelona the same way: on foot, by bus, by train and by bike.
For this report, I have took many pictures and describes where I took them and the streetscape or transportation changes visible in them.
Barcelona and Chicago share many traits. Both claim a strong industrial past, are important commercial centers, dotted with renowned universities, have marked the world of architecture and support major centers of art, medicine and science. Located at roughly the same latitude, the two border large bodies of water and both form the core of a large, sprawling metropolitan area surrounded by suburbs.
Ignoring Barcelona’s medieval city center, much of Barcelona is built in a grid pattern like that of Chicago. A big difference is that most Barcelona blocks are rectangular with the corners cut (chamfered).
There are also contrasts. Barcelona is more densely built – like Chicago’s Edgewater and Bucktown neighborhoods – and is much more walkable than Chicago. Supermarkets, fruit and vegetable shops, bakeries or cafes are never more than a block away – there are no food deserts. Barcelona has a more predictable climate, gets very hot in the summer but sees no snow in the winter, is surrounded by a 1,500 foot high mountain range. And while most of the city is flat, around 20% of the city is built on moderate to steep slopes.
Neighborhoods in Barcelona operate similarly to neighborhoods in Chicago, but the Mayor of Barcelona has much more authority over public transit policy and projects. Neither the Catalan state government (Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain) nor the district mayors can influence the development of public transport as the aldermen of Chicago and the IDOT in Chicago do.
From the 1950s to the early 2000s, Barcelona followed a familiar car-centric approach to transport, accelerated in preparing the city for the 1992 Olympics when a few large projects were created to maximize the flow of traffic through the city. ring at Plaça de les Glories being the most notorious. Most vehicular thoroughfares were made unidirectional, creating six-lane thoroughfares that even contemporary Chicago wouldn’t dream of. With few exceptions, drivers were given free rein, traffic volumes increased, creating a noisy and accident-prone urban environment which, due to its reliance on diesel-powered vehicles and two-stroke motorcycles running to “diesel”, pollution at alarming levels.
While some steps had already been taken to reverse the negative effects of her car addiction, the “Universal Forum of Cultureswhich was held in Barcelona in 2004 can be seen as an important step in which the city showed its willingness to appease and diversify its urban transport as part of a broader plan “to support peace, sustainable development, human rights and respect for diversity”. Many of the measures then proposed and now being implemented have already yielded notable results. These same measures could work the same way in Chicago.
Bicing, the Barcelona version of the Divvy self-service bike, was introduced in 2004 and immediately took off beyond expectations. Yet the absence of cycle paths initially created such cycling anarchy that the construction of an integral network became a necessity. Like Chicago this first resulted in paint on the road, and often in ill-chosen spots, the most hilarious being the bike lanes that ended at subway entrances.
Luckily, Barcelona learned quickly and are now redesigning the streets, so they still have a bike lane marked with paint and physically protected by so-called ‘armadillos’. These devices have certain advantages, mainly in that they are durable, robust, easy to install and protect reasonably well. Also, due to their spacing and orientation, the bikes can easily escape the bike lane when needed, but motorized traffic cannot enter it as easily. On the negative side, armadillos are low to the ground and motorized vehicles can quickly lose control of their vehicle (2- or 4-wheeled) when they hit them. Maybe an upgraded version, which would combine the armadillo’s solid base with Chicago’s current plastic poles so it sticks out of the snow, could be a solution for both cities, especially Chicago, to speed up the creation of a connected network of cycle paths which is still necessary there.
One thing worth pointing out is that Barcelona has built many of its current cycle lanes on main thoroughfares, allowing cyclists the same most direct connection as cars. They did this by reducing car capacity on roads like Aragó, Diagonal and Gran Vía. Imagine how it would transform Michigan Avenue, State Street or Irving Park Road. While Chicago remains ambiguous on the issue, Barcelona has clearly recognized the bicycle as a means of transportation – not just leisure – and has placed the bicycle on an equal footing with motorized vehicles.
Barcelona has ended free parking in most of the city and drastically reduced on-street parking, often only allowing parking on one side of the street, with parked cars functioning as a buffer between cars and bikes , a model that a few streets in Chicago and Evanston are also trying. The reduction on the street was associated with the construction of numerous underground car parks to ensure the neighborhood’s accessibility to shops and restaurants. A similar approach in denser Chicago neighborhoods like Wicker Park would make a lot of sense and could free up large swathes of Milwaukee for shopping, dining while also making them much safer for traffic that stays at the same time. time.
Barcelona has buried its streets and main thoroughfares for the past thirty years and is on the verge of transforming one of the most egregious examples of car-centricity, the Square of Glories, in a natural park. Massive sound deflectors have been built where the Gran Vía surfaces from the tunnels and is transformed into a real highway. The result was a noticeably calmer city, a better quality of life. Imagine that the Circle Interchange road spaghetti that has been under construction for a decade is surrounded by large noise barriers and that much of the Kennedy Freeway west of downtown is covered in green space. Imagine a good chunk of DuSable Lake Shore Drive being covered or integrated and reducing its impact like the great divider it currently is.
Here’s the good news for all these separate operations: in the Barcelona metropolitan area, a single ticket system allows access and transfer between all systems. Kind of what the Chicago RTA has been trying to achieve for decades? All systems have modern equipment and well-maintained facilities, a network that provides frequent and reliable service. Buses run on dedicated lanes, but have no special signage and there is no Bus Rapid Transit either. Still, bus service, with some lines operating 24 hours a day, is generally fast, comfortable and reliable. The rail map reveals a system which reaches allows you to travel from point A to B efficiently and directly.
Barcelona has seriously modernized public space for pedestrians. These range from widening sidewalks so that even when cafes pop up there’s still plenty of space, to blocking entire streets of cars so commerce can flourish, and narrowing and limiting traffic lanes. traffic for cars, making them easier to cross, while forcing drivers to slow down. It seems like a win-win scenario that would be applicable in so many commercial areas in every neighborhood in Chicago, if only to ensure a fair and inclusive approach that would benefit everyone, not just the wealthier neighborhoods.
Finally, Barcelona are not finished and their current policies have generated a good share of detractors. The owner of a bike shop in my neighborhood criticized the lack of consistency in the design and execution of the new ways and remaining too car-friendly. Above all, he was disappointed that Barcelona did not follow the examples of cities like Cologne, Münster, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. While a few tourists I spoke to loved the transformation, some of my Catalan friends, even those on the left side, are highly critical of the current mayor, Ada Colau, for what they perceive as traffic chaos. As I don’t drive, I don’t share these feelings, because I move very well.
They also criticize the considerable sums of money that are spent. But like IDOT’s Circle Interchange, isn’t there an argument that this project also creates jobs? All I can say is that I believe Barcelona’s transformation would similarly change and improve Chicago in many cases, and I recommend anyone responsible for Chicago’s future transit to come see and experience themselves this promising example.