Cars Dominate Cities Today. Barcelona has Set Out to Change That.
Salvador Rueda is gripped by a vision for Barcelona.
In his mind’s eye, he sees a city no longer dominated by automobiles. Most streets once devoted to cars have been transformed into walkable, mixed-use public spaces, what he calls “superblocks,” where pedestrians, cyclists, and citizens mix in safety. Each resident has access to their own superblock and can traverse the city to visit the others without the need for, or fear of, motorized private vehicles.
It is a utopian vision, nothing any existing major city has achieved, but Rueda may just live to see it come true, or at least some version of it.
After years working in city government, Rueda started the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, a public research consortium, in 2000. He’s a noted expert in the field of urbanism, an author of books, and an in-demand speaker, but above all, his life has been a long and committed affair of the heart with his home city. He has been immersed in Barcelona urban planning for almost 40 years.
Now his vision for the city has found its way into an urban plan that has the backing of the current municipal administration. It is currently being implemented, with the audacious goal of replicating Barcelona’s five existing superblocks, ahem, 495 more times.
The plan, which contains not only superblocks but comprehensive programs for green space, bicycle and bus networks, and much more, will not eliminate cars in the city, or deny one to anyone who needs one. But it will radically reduce their prevalence, the amount of space they occupy, and demand for their services. If it is fully implemented (a task that could take multiple administrations, even multiple generations), it could make Barcelona the first plausibly “post-car” major city in the world — a place where most streets are not for cars and most people don’t have one.
Predictably, there remains a great deal of controversy over whether the full vision is possible. Implementing it will involve challenges ranging from short-term traffic problems to blowback generated by gentrification. It could be weakened or corrupted over time, like other utopian urban plans before it.
But at least for now, Barcelona’s urban plan is the most ambitious thing going — a more rapid, progressive, and humane transformation of a city, in a shorter span of time, than any other global city, certainly any American city, has dared envision.
Barcelona strives to be walkable, but still, the cars
This is what Rueda says when he wants to make a point. We are walking along the periphery of the superblock that surrounds Barcelona’s newly renovated Sant Antoni market, in a neighborhood on the city’s southwest side.
Under the city’s supervision, a four-square-block area, roughly 5,000 square meters, has been pedestrianized, reclaimed from cars and given over to people for a mix of uses. Only residents’ vehicles and delivery vehicles enter, and when they do, they are on the same level of pavement as pedestrians and must match their speed.
We have come upon a crosswalk, with a small ramp leading to a painted pathway across the street. At the curb, there’s a trash can on one side and a lamppost on the other. The tableau is, to my eye, entirely unremarkable.
Every detail of this crosswalk, Rueda notes, has been carefully attended. The edging of the curb is a special rigid granite. The trash can and lamppost were chosen for their harmonious aesthetic and durability. This precise configuration — the ramp, the can, the post, their spacing and appearance — is replicated at new crosswalks throughout the city.
The configuration of crosswalks is not something most pedestrians will consciously notice. But over time, it is experienced as a pleasantly familiar phrase in a kind of urban vernacular, as though the city were murmuring encouragement to be on foot. Everything is where you expect it.
It is through attention to these kinds of details that the city attempts to be comprehensible, navigable, and welcoming at a human scale, to people not in cars.
“Is everywhere the same solution,” Rueda says, regarding the lamppost with satisfaction. “Is the grammatical to read our city.”
(This is probably the place to note that Rueda declined the services of the proffered translator, opting instead to deliver a continuous stream of insights on urbanism in a kind of singsong broken English, like a hyper-erudite Dr. Seuss. Reader, the effect was delightful.)
Rueda’s enthusiasm for the fine-grained texture of urban life — the spacing of trees, the height and orientation of signs, the structure of intersections — is infectious. His discourse on crosswalks comes amid a two-hour stroll filled with such details, each one revealing some new facet of the city’s logic and history, like little veils being peeled away.
As I stand inspecting the newly intriguing trash can, I can’t help but be struck by a contrast. To one side of us is the superblock, filled with people walking with their shopping bags and small dogs, sitting in clusters, everywhere talking and talking.
Or at least they look like they’re talking. The low buzz of conversation is drowned out by what’s to our other side: cars. A long line of belching, honking, slowly advancing cars, now routed around the superblock.
Their pungent fumes are a reminder that even with its unique advantages, Barcelona faces an uphill battle. It is never easy to claw back land from private vehicles.
But pushing back the tide of cars that swamped the world’s cities in the latter half of the 20th century is the next great task facing the world’s urban planners, and they are beginning to take it on.
Cities are beginning to dig out from under cars
Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have lent new urgency to the fight against climate change, which will hit cities especially hard, not just in storms and sea level rise but in heat waves, water shortages, and supply chain disruptions.
For cities, global warming yields two central challenges. They must reduce their carbon emissions while simultaneously becoming more resilient, better able to weather climate extremes. Both challenges mean reducing the number of private vehicles.
Transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions are rising, in the US and globally, even as renewable energy begins to make a dent in the electricity sector. And it’s not just greenhouse gases — every additional car brings more local air and water pollution, noise pollution, collisions and fatalities, and increased infrastructure costs.
What’s more, in a world that is rapidly urbanizing and expected to continue doing so, cars present a simple problem of geometry. The space required to accommodate citizens traveling in private vehicles, in parking and roads, leaves less and less for other uses of the city. And building more roads just leads to more drivers and more congestion, a phenomenon known as “induced demand.”
(Privately owned electric vehicles solve only a subset of these problems. They still pollute — particulates from tires grinding on streets are a major source of air pollution — and they still, crucially, take up space.)
In cities built to make driving necessary, i.e., most major cities these days, many citizens begin thinking of themselves primarily as drivers. They advocate for, and defend, the prerogatives of drivers. They accept the malign health effects that come with auto-dominated living, everything from respiratory diseases to obesity to heart disease, as a matter of course, because they have few alternatives. Often they can only see measures to reduce private vehicle travel as a threat, a loss.
That’s why it is, always and everywhere, difficult to push cars out of spaces they have already colonized. It is always a fight.
But cities are trying, with varying means and varying ambition.
Often, that takes the form of banning vehicles from busy city centers, either temporarily or permanently. Oslo, Norway, has effectively banned cars from its center. Last year, Spain’s capital, Madrid, announced plans to do much the same, banning non-resident automobiles in its core. Pontevedra, Spain, has entirely banned cars from its center and substantially reduced them outside it (and has subsequently seen its shrinking economy revitalized).
London recently announced plans to make half the streets in its city center permanently car-free. Paris has banned cars from its center on the first Sunday of each month.
Other cities are taking on cars with more comprehensive plans. Hamburg, Germany, has a plan to turn 40 percent of its land area over to connected, car-free green spaces. Montreal, Quebec, is building a whole network of car-free streets. Helsinki, Finland, has a plan to densify its suburbs and connect them with public transit. Denmark is building cycling superhighways between its small towns and plans to ban the sale of gasoline and diesel cars entirely from 2030 forward.
Even in the US, the tide is beginning to turn in some cities, though more slowly than in Europe. New York City has pushed cars out of Central Park and has an annual car-free Earth Day. In March, it announced a plan for congestion pricing in lower Manhattan, starting in 2021. A revitalizing Detroit has a new plan to aggressively build out multimodal transportation. Denver is pushing walkability and public parks. My home city of Seattle is busy building out a massive light rail expansion.
But there may be no city in the world that has suffered more from cars, or has bigger plans to reduce their presence, than the capital of Catalonia.
Barcelona is jammed with cars and suffers their attendant ills
Like many growing global cities, Barcelona has become a victim of its own success.
The city proper has a population of around 1.6 million, which hasn’t grown substantially in the past decade because it is already extremely dense. (At 16,000 people per square kilometer, it is the fourth most population-dense city in Europe; its densest neighborhood boasts 53,000 people per square kilometer, greater than Manila, the world’s densest city.)
But auto ownership rates and auto density have increased, even as the metropolitan region around Barcelona has grown, up to around 5.5 million people from around 4.3 million in 2000. More commuters are coming into the city, jostling with the locals.
The surge of cars is overwhelming even the capacity built up over decades of auto-centric development. And while that’s a familiar story in cities across the world, it is worse for Barcelona than most.
Even relative to other dense cities, Barcelona has few green or permeable surfaces. Residents have access to just 2.7 square meters of green space per resident, well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 9 square meters.
As a result, the city experiences a particularly severe urban heat island effect. Filled with heat-producing cars and heat-absorbing concrete and pavement, cities often grow substantially warmer than surrounding rural areas. Barcelona is typically about 3 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, as much as 7 or 8°C depending on the season. The extra heat takes a heavy toll on vulnerable populations, especially children and the elderly.
The combination of concrete, scarce green space, and lots of cars means noise. By some estimates, Barcelona is the noisiest city in Europe and one of the noisiest in the world. Though noise gets less attention than air pollution, Rueda says its health impacts, in hearing loss, stress, and heart conditions, are almost equal.
Today, 44 percent of Barcelona residents are exposed to higher-than-recommended air pollution levels, and 46 percent higher-than-recommended noise levels.
A 2017 study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health attempted to tally up the total cost in lives of all these factors. It compared the city’s performance against international standards (from the World Health Organization and elsewhere) on “physical activity, air pollution, noise, heat, and access to green spaces.” It concluded that the cumulative impact of Barcelona’s failure to meet those standards was roughly 3,000 cases of premature mortality a year.
And a new study, published in September by Rueda and several colleagues, found that if the city implements Rueda’s plan to build 503 superblocks, the city could prevent 667 premature deaths every year.
Across the political spectrum, these effects are seen as an urgent problem the city must confront. And in every case, confronting them means confronting cars.
Barcelona is uniquely well-positioned to refocus on people, not cars
Though the city is exceptionally choked with traffic, there may be no place in the world with a better chance to demonstrate that a post-car city — a city where auto traffic has been tamed and rerouted, leaving most of the streets for people — is both imaginable and achievable.
To begin with, Barcelona has a continual, centuries-long history of urban rebirth and transformation, often at the hands of iconoclastic urban visionaries like Rueda. Independence and a taste for radicalism have deep roots in the city.
It also has an advantage many newer cities lack: infrastructure built before the era of the automobile. Some areas have narrow, winding streets; others feature short, regular blocks friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Its density can readily be made to serve walkability.
Although politics in the region remain tumultuous — the question of Catalan independence bedevils every election — there is consensus across political lines that air pollution and greenhouse gases must be addressed, and it must involve reducing the prevalence of cars. The city in June re-elected its progressive mayor, Ada Colau, whose administration is dedicated to public space and vigorously pushing forward the city’s urban plan.
And what a plan!
The changes it has already wrought have drawn international acclaim. In December 2018, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology chose Barcelona as the European Capital of Urban Mobility. It will lead to a large consortium of cities exploring urban innovation, an honor that will come with billions of euros in investment and the aid of dozens of strategic partners.
And the changes so far are just the beginning. That superblock around the Sant Antoni market? The first phase reclaimed 5,000 square meters from cars. This year, the second phase of that project is expected to reclaim another 21,000.
Sant Antoni is technically Barcelona’s fifth superblock, but the plan envisions something far beyond that: a city carpeted in superblocks (superilles in Catalan), some 500 of them, with almost 70 percent of its streets eventually devoted to mixed use.
Seventy percent. That would mean a shift in the urban fabric as significant as the arrival of cars in the first place. It would restore the many other uses of city streets, from recreation to socializing to organizing, to parity with private vehicle use.
And it has Rueda’s fingerprints all over it. He’s been dreaming of a post-car city for three decades, putting pieces in place. Now he watches nervously as the plan takes its first few steps.
When our long ramble is over, Rueda and I duck into a cab. The ubiquitous low buzz of Barcelona street life is temporarily muffled, and Rueda, in the sudden silence, grows reflective.
“I am a public professional. If I worked in a private job, perhaps I could be rich,” he says with a rueful smile. “But my richness, above all, is to see this.” He gestures to the papers in his lap, spilling into the seat beside him, full of plans, maps, and charts describing how finally to build, after a half-century of cities for cars, a city for people.