Pamplona, Navarra, Spain-6 years of ambitious planning and €16,000,000 of investment later, Pamplona has seen a marked increase in cycling. The University of Navarra estimates that 2.5 percent of its nearly 200,000 citizens are cyclists, up from 1 percent in 2006.
Nevertheless, residents of Navarra’s capital city are not satisfied with the existing infrastructure. A plurality of recently surveyed Pamploneses think cycle tracks, essentially separated bicycle lanes, are the biggest problem in the city. Interestingly, the two age groups that identified cycle tracks as a priority were the 18-24 year olds and those older than 64.
A cycle track in Pamplona. It is raised from the road and separated from traffic by parked cars. This infrastructure has been identified as problematic by the young and old of Pamplona alike. (Photo by Brian Vaughn).
Pamplona is not unique among Spanish cities in its newly found infatuation with “la bici”. Municipalities such as Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastián-Donostia, Zaragoza, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Bilbao and Sevilla now accommodate more cyclists than in years past. Sevilla jumped from 0.5 to 7 percent from 2006 to 2013, and was named 4th best place in the world to ride a bicycle by well-respected copenhagenize.com.
Overseas, the United States is also realizing cycling growth. Alliance for Biking & Walking found that bicycle commuting in large American cities increased from 0.7 to 1 percent between 2005 and 2012. Accompanying this growth was a doubling of the per capita state funding to bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.
The American capital of cyclability—Portland, Oregon—realized a 4.5% increase in cycling commuters.
Why does any of this matter? Many in the millennial generation will live in a city, and how they move matters. It matters not only in terms of carbon footprint, but also livability. Quality of life tends to be ranked higher in cities in which you can move without a car.
As more Spanish cities increase their cyclability, American cities can learn from their progress. Sets of circumstances in one country that inhibits or foment cycling success is not always present in the other. The following list presents those characteristics, comparing and contrasting cases in Spain and the US.
1) A culture of respect for non-motorized road users
Spanish drivers stop for pedestrians and cyclists at intersections. This reporter has observed crossings at dozens of marked crosswalks and seen drivers waiting for pedestrians and cyclists. In hundreds of these situations, there were only 5 or 6 cases in which the driver did stop for the pedestrian or cyclist.
This culture of respect is simply not present in the US. Despite myriad signs reminding motorists where they must yield, drivers barrel through without consideration for the pedestrian or cyclist.
What could explain this difference? Perhaps it is that American drivers are unaccustomed to dealing with pedestrians and cyclists. It could be that so few American drivers experience being a pedestrian in any place but a parking lot, or a cyclist in any place but a greenway.
Another explanation has to do with history. Spanish cities are much older than their American counterparts, oftentimes hundreds of years older. Americans grew up driving on roads only meant for cars, while Europeans walked or drove on roads that predate the car.
2) Advocacy groups and bloggers making waves
A cyclist in Chapel Hill heads west on Cameron Avenue on an unprotected bicycle lane. As part of The Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill’s plan, signs would be placed along this street and others to help cyclists find the most bike-friendly route around town. The lane would also be painted green to clearly denote that the space belongs to the cyclist. (Courtesy Go Chapel Hill).
Both the United States and Spain have significantly influential bicycling advocacy groups and bloggers.
The Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill, North Carolina works to “implement the Bike Master Plan, foster a bike friendly culture in town, and organize cycling related events.” Rainer Dammers, the group’s president, outlined three projects the group is currently focused on in an interview.
The Alliance has organized bike rides with staff from the town of Chapel Hill, many of whom he said have limited cycling experience and don’t live in the town. Dammers said that the town’s police chief said he felt that he now saw things from a new perspective after participating.
“Planners and police can be well intentioned, but if you don’t experience the roads on a bike there are limitations.” Dammers said.
Another area of focus for the Alliance is the “wayfinder project”. Dammers said the group plans to work with the town to augment signs, paint bike lanes, and make side roads more accessible to cyclists. The Alliance is also working with Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools to implement “Let’s Go NC”, an education program that teaches elementary age children to walk and bike safely.
Dammers emphasized that Let’s Go NC could have a lasting positive effect about the way children think about cycling.
“This is a way to make it natural for kids to continue to bike and walk so that they will become deciders with a different mindset,” he said.
Pamplona’s groups address the issues in a similar way to the Alliance’s approach, but with a more markedly political tinge. The Association for Healthy Transportation Modes offers a free class to “teach how to move around the city by bike in a practical, comfortable, and secure manner.”
Geography professor Juan José Pons Izquierdo of the University of Navarra said the Association opposed the city’s bicycle plan. Apparently, it did not find the plan to be sufficient nor democratic for a good cycling environment.
“Politicians make decisions before asking the people what they want,” said Pons Izquierdo. whose studies focus on urban issues.
Dr. Pons Izquierdo thinks Pamplona’s municipal government has failed to engage the opinions of cycling advocates. A better approach, he thinks, would be for government officials to meaningfully solicit these advocates’ input on plans for new infrastructure.
Local cyclist Eneko Astigarraga is not afraid to make bold statements in his politically tinged blog. One post from earlier this month states, “The car in the city is a dangerous, pernicious, and deadly vice in need of removal in a determined manner.” Perhaps Astigarraga’s words are siloed and not well communicated to decision makers, but they certainly engage the reader.
3) Road ownership
A road diet as defined by the United States Department of Transportation. A car lane is removed to create a wider shoulder and a middle turn lane. (Courtesy: United States Department of Transportation, “Road Diet Informational Guide”, pg. 3).
Perhaps the greatest limiting factor to implementing better bicycle infrastructure in the United States, apart from funding, is road ownership. In Chapel Hill, the mostly heavily trafficked roads are owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The same is true for municipalities in other states that are trying to implement better bicycle infrastructure.
Why does this matter? Rainer Dammers thinks it has to do with traffic engineers’ philosophy. His complaint is that for engineers, road diets—a strategy that replaces a car lane with cyclist and pedestrian space—are not the norm.
“Recommendations for road diets haven’t been followed because cycling infrastructure is an afterthought for traffic engineers. They go at it with a mindset of a car traffic engineer. That does not work,” he said.
The same problem is experienced by small municipalities in Spain. Oftentimes, the autonomous community or central government will have control over main streets in small villages. This makes planning for bicycles and pedestrians more difficult administratively.
Dr. Pons Izquierdo said that two autonomous communities, the Basque Country and Navarra, allow municipalities to have their own domain over roads. Coincidentally, their cities: Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz, San Sebastián-Donostia, and Pamplona are among Spain’s most cyclable.
Cycle tracks in San Sebastián (above) and Bilbao (below). Physical separation is a key aspect of making this infrastructure accessible to inexperienced, slow, and elderly riders. (Photo by Brian Vaughn).
4) Protected, separated bicycle lanes and intersections
Physical infrastructure and how it makes a rider feel on the road is necessary for getting more people to ride bicycles. Nick Falbo, Portland, Oregon based transportation planner and designer, thinks the US is still doing the “bare minimum” on this front.
Nick Falbo of Alta Planning’s design for a protected bicycle lane and intersection combination in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The plan allows simultaneous crossing of pedestrians or bicycles to maximize safety. (Courtesy Nick Falbo).
However, he and other planners and designers are leading the charge towards infrastructures that help the most vulnerable cyclists feel safe. This means physical separation from cars.
Cycle tracks, as pictured above, provide the cyclist with a sense of security while riding. Instead of constantly checking over their shoulder for a passing car, they can relax and focus on road ahead.
The next challenge, Falbo believes, is designing intersections that minimize the risk of collisions between bicycles, vehicles, and pedestrians. From this philosophy, informed by Dutch designs, he adapted the protected bicycle lane and intersection. The design is outlined in this video, and was realized during a pop up demonstration in Minneapolis in June.
While Pamplona touts 75 kilometers of protected cycle track, cycling advocates remain unsatisfied. This is because the proverbial weak link, according to Dr. Pons Izquierdo, is lack of connection of the network to destinations in the Old Town, Pamplona’s nearly car-free, walkable neighborhood.
“They don’t consult the people who know. Because of this, cycling infrastructure in Pamplona is terrible,” Pons Izqueirdo said of government planners.
One Chapel Hill cyclist thinks a cycle track would be a welcome addition to the town’s infrastructure.
Victoria Petermann, who started a cooperative for women cyclists with friends, thinks separation would make her and others feel safer on major roads.
“You won’t be thinking, ‘Will this car try to slip by me without giving me three feet of space?’”
5) Government prioritization
Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country’s capital of Spain, is a cyclist’s paradise. But that did not happen overnight. Eduardo Rojo, architect in the city’s Department of Public Space and Natural Environment and Vitoria-Gasteiz native, recounted the following history of bicycle infrastructure in Vitoria-Gasteiz.
“The city was home to Spain’s first cycle track in the 1960s, but the track was removed when the city became more industrial in the 1970s. The city began building a bike network in the 1980s for recreation, not transportation. 8 years ago, a sustainable mobility and public space plan was introduced to establish a well-connected network of no more than 150 kilometers. The idea is not to build more, but to calm traffic and establish connections for safe riding,” he said.
A recently updated bicycle track that approaches a roundabout in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Rather than focusing on building more, the municipality has focused on making cycling infrastructure better connected. (Photo by Brian Vaughn).
The city’s officials have done what many American municipalities stop short of—declaring that car use should be discouraged. Vitoria-Gasteiz’s crated the Center for Environmental Studies in 1995, which now lead by urbanist Juan Carlos Escudero, to accomplish this and other environmentally friendly goals.
The Center coordinates technical teams across the government to guarantee all policies implemented by the city. Escudero sees its efforts as integral to increasingly the cyclability of his city.
“If you tried to only follow the strategy, the vision would be lost. The Center allows for a single initiative like cyclability to be pursued by many parts of the city government,” said Escudero.
When the municipal government first published its cyclability report, only 3% of its trips were made by bicycle in 2006. Its goal: 15% of trips by 2020. Today, according to Escudero, 12% of trips are made by bike, the highest modal share of any city in Spain.
One of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s main roads, Gasteiz Hiribidea, was once an 8 lane highway. Today, after a serious road diet, it contains a stream, 2 cycle tracks, a tram line, and a sidewalk. New businesses opened along the street after the redesign, according to Eduardo Rojo. (Photo by Brian Vaughn).
American cities lack a similar government structure that created a successful shift to more bicycle use.
Eduardo Rojo believes the car deserves little space in city where he grew up, and the one he now designs.
“74% of our city’s space is for the car, but only 24% of the trips are made by car. That is not a fair way to give space to our citizens.”