The Superblock Experiment in Barcelona

When it was first developed motorised vehicles was seen as a huge leap forward in technology. It was a way to improve the quality of life of the residents of a city.

Interestingly the main vehicle during its development explains why European and American cities differ so much in the residential distribution based on economic wealth – in Europe where most cities were developed long before industrialisation, the wealthy prized proximity to the workplace; in contrast in America when motorised transport was commonplace the wealthy preferred larger space and quiet.

Motorised vehicles provided a great leap forward from the era of horse-drawn carriages. A battle that was not always an easy one to win, nor one that was irrepressible.

However the time has perhaps come where the benefits of private motorised vehicles has long been outstripped by the cons. Where there are a few cars, these vehicles are a luxury; where everyone has one however new problems emerge – including vehicular congestion, excessive noise and environmental pollution, higher risk of vehicle-human accidents. In essence humans give way to cars and the effect of massification of private transport is decreased quality of life.

Solutions therefore need to be sought to deal with this and the cities at the forefront of a solution are located mostly in Europe. There is the Nordic and Dutch solution of bicycles, there is the German and Swedish implementation of high quality public transport (that gets cheaper as you commit to long term rides).

Then there is the Barcelona solution. Taking advantage of the neat blocks structure that the Eixample district was designed with, the Barcelona municipal administration decided to develop the Superblock concept.

Through the Superblocks program, Barcelona is redesigning the city’s streets to limit traffic and increase the amount of green and recreational spaces available to citizens. The new program changes traditional city blocks into clusters of “superblocks,” where perimeter streets allow through traffic, but inner streets are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. So far, the city has created Superblocks in four pilot neighborhoods, and by 2019, it expects the program will achieve CO2 emissions reductions of between 20% and 75%. The Superblocks program does not involve major physical changes, which allows for experimentation and reversibility. The project is part of a larger Urban Mobility Plan, a strategic measure of Barcelona’s Climate Commitment, expected to decrease traffic by 21% while extending car-free spaces by more than 23 hectares and adding 300 km of bike lanes. This measure will reduce CO2 emissions by 159,100 metric tons per year.

Cities 100

What Superblocks do in essence is to put different modes of transport in a different place. Each superblock is a polygon of about 400m x 400m bound by an exterior set of streets and an interior set of streets. Pedestrian traffic takes place in the inner streets of a block and vehicular traffic on the main streets. What this does is to decrease the routes for traffic and return smaller block areas to pedestrians. By doing so the roads becomes safer, there are more spaces for pedestrians and the air quality in the immediate environment improves. Superblocks seem to have more than just traffic effects. By creating more pedestrian spaces, the space for social interaction has increased as has the space for economic activity.

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Now this idea is not something that only Barcelona does, according to this very informative article there is a similar idea taking place in the Netherlands, with the aim of calming traffic.

How has the Superblock concept worked in practice? This video investigates.

Now, these videos and posts seem to suggest that the idea is so universally good that no one could argue against it, but deocracies mean that different opinions exists, and there was opposition to the Superblock plan – in fact residents of the Barcelona district involved in this pilot, the Problenou district, voted against the continuation of the Superblock plan. According to this report, the opposition to the Superblocks was a matter of politics, however it seems that there are also challenges of practicality that were raised as complaints, according to this article, residents complained that “thanks to rerouting, a car journey of 900 meters (just over half a mile) had tripled in length, while traffic around the perimeter had also increased” A superblock plan may work to improve the lies of pedestrians but will hurt drivers – stopping traffic and deterring drivers was the very intention of the Superblocks.

Car drivers are typically not a bloc that most residents feel sympathy for, and for good reason. Drivers benefit from traveling around in convenience, its the residents who have to pick up the mess. The difficulties of making a car journey while sounding bad in principle, may not always be a bad thing, since the harder it is to drive, the more of an incentive there will be to walk and for the municipal authorities to invest in the local public transport system.

Just as motorised vehicles were a leap forward for the quality of life of residents on top of using horses, Superblocks are a new method that could improve the quality of life of residents in a city. It is highly possible that the Superblock model may catch on since a number of influential articles have raised this topic as something worthy of study. While this does not indicate that people will adopt this solution in many cities, I would not bet against this method to improve pubic transport in the city becoming more and more widely adopted.

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