Will Barcelona’s “Superblocks” Proposal Work Well for Transit?

Will "Superblocks" "solve the main problems of urban mobility?" Image: BC Necologica
Within Barcelona’s superblocks, car traffic will be limited. What happens on the streets outside the superblocks? Image: BC Necologica

Barcelona is making waves with plans to test a concept it’s calling “superblocks.” The idea is to create nine-block squares of “citizen spaces” — about 400 meters on each side — where cars would be limited. Unlike the widely derided superblocks of the urban renewal era, Barcelona’s would be explicitly designed to preserve the street grid for walking and biking — only motor vehicle through traffic would be discouraged.

City officials have identified five neighborhoods where the superblock concept will be tested. The streets inside each superblock would be close to car-free. Local motor vehicle traffic will be allowed at very low speeds (under 10 KPH) and so would emergency vehicles. Surface parking would be prohibited.

Officials believe this arrangement of streets can help Barcelona achieve its goal of reducing traffic by 21 percent. It’s part of a broader plan that also calls for 300 kilometers of new bike infrastructure.

Relieved of the obligation to move motor vehicle through traffic and store cars, the streets would be freed up for public space, walking, and biking. One question the plan raises, however, is how it would affect transit.

Image: BCN Ecologia
Image: BCN Ecologia

City officials say buses will be routed along the major thoroughfares outside the superblocks, and stops will be adjusted so “no one is more than 300 meters from a bus stop,” according to the Guardian. The city is also planning to change bus service so average wait time drops from 13 minutes. The reimagined bus network will make it possible to make nearly any trip “with just one transfer,” Salvador Rueda, one of the Barcelona officials behind the project, told the Guardian.

It’s not clear, however, whether buses will get priority lanes or have to slog through additional car traffic.

And if buses only travel in one direction, as the diagram indicates (most streets in Barcelona are one-way), that could pose major problems too, says transit expert Jarrett Walker.

“One-way splits,” as they’re called, reduce access to transit. Fewer people can conveniently walk to transit if there’s a significant distance between each direction of service on the same route.

One-way splits separated by 400 meters would be “terrible for transit,” Walker told Streetsblog. “You can only use transit if you can walk to both directions of service.”

  • Vooch

    great Idea

  • Mike

    This would be delightful in my neighborhood.

  • If they’re planning to improve bike infrastructure, then what’s the problem? As shown by the experience of the Dutch, biking will replace transit on shorter trips anyway if it’s easy and convenient to use. In that case, the buses should absolutely focus on efficient middle distance travel on the one-way network over making sure every single street has two-way bus service.

  • c2check

    Having to walk 400m for the bus in the opposite direction could be extremely confusing for riders. Perhaps they could make some 2-way bus/bike-only streets in the grid where superblocks are located.

  • Paul Benson

    Love it

  • Joe R.

    This is a proper implementation of the superblock concept.

  • J

    Seems a lot like the Dutch concept of unraveling bike routes from car routes, which is the same basic idea as a bike boulevard, but on a larger scale. They’e been doing this for decades, but not making much fuss about it. They don’t typically have grids, so it’s not as obvious.

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2012/04/100-segregation-of-bikes-and-cars.html

  • J

    Better image of this concept, from A View from the Cycle Path:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2009/02/how-groningen-grew-to-be-worlds-number.html

  • I live part of the year in Barcelona—Almost all streets here already have separate (priority) lanes for Bus/Taxi. The pace at which bicycle infrastructure is implemented is quite impressive, and it has seriously increased ridership over the last ten years.

  • Kevin Love

    Confusing to which riders? For local people? My bus stop in one direction is here and in the other direction is there. Not too hard.

  • AndreL

    That is not necessarily a positive thing. Of course cycling infrastructure is great. However, not everyone wants to cycle, and having rail-based (not bus based) transportation is necessary.

  • Dennis McClendon

    It seems rather strange to—in 2016—introduce the functional classification system to a pleasant European city. The focus on pedestrian streets ignores what nasty vehicular sewers the crosstown arterials will become. We can perhaps dismiss the American suburban experience as different because of density and transit use, but the problem can be seen quite clearly in most big Asian cities. The “neighborhood” streets are indeed quiet and narrow, but the major arterials are 12-lane monsters that pedestrians can only cross at a few designated locations.

  • c2check

    For people who don’t ride the line regularly, or if your sense of direction isn’t great. If you can’t see the bus stop in the opposite direction, it can really reduce your confidence in being able to get back where you came from. A lot can go awry in 400m of walking—and if you screw up (e.g. walk the wrong direction) you can sink a good deal of time just trying to get right again (e.g. if you walk the wrong way all the way to the next main avenue, then realize you have to go back, you can spend 15 minutes just looking for/walking to the right bus stop)

  • kevd

    Barcelona has almost 200 metro stations and a couple dozen commuter rail stations. They are currently building 2 new metro lines.
    So, they’re doing just fine on the heavy rail front.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    I share Dennis McClendon’s concerns. On each superblock, half the streets will be quiet, pedestrian friendly shared spaces. The other half will carry all the car and truck traffic. On the face of it, that’s a basically unfair situation for the people on the traffic streets. The benefit for people on the pedestrian streets is obvious; what’s the benefit for people on the traffic streets? The city says average traffic speed could increase 22%, or average traffic volume could increase 28%, depending on which they prioritize. That suggests people on the traffic streets will suffer more pollution, noise, and crash risk. http://prod-mobilitat.s3.amazonaws.com/PMU_Sintesi_Angles.pdf

    In addition, trucks will be banned from the pedestrian streets, so the traffic streets will have extra truck loading and unloading operations to transfer goods and get them in and out of the superblock interiors. Again, great for people in the interior, not so great for people on the outsides of the superblocks.

  • Frank Kotter

    Right, but this issue can be drastically improved with a fee structure for use of the city streets. Congestion fees have worked remarkably well in London. Barcelona can expect similar effects.

  • I would love it if the Superblock concept was adopted for the project towers of NYC. Those buildings are bad to look at and an ineffective use of space.

  • In pedestrian areas of Barcelona, trucks are allowed with the right permits and at certain hours for loading/off-loading. This works just fine. Also, don’t forget that transport to and from these places will still be possible, just not with a private automobile operating at 20% capacity.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    Please see the plan document I linked in my previous post. It recommends freight distribution centers be set up on the traffic streets. Freight would be unloaded and transferred to small electric delivery vehicles, especially electric cargo bikes. The current freight system may work fine today, but in the future the traffic streets may experience increased heavy truck traffic and truck loading operations.

    The U.S. model of traffic arterials is a poor one for Barcelona to emulate. They are the most dangerous roadways ( http://pedshed.net/?p=1050 ) and the most unpleasant for pedestrians and residents, with excessive noise and pollution. The traffic death rate in New York City (one of the safest cities in the US) is about 39 per million people; in Barcelona it is about 19 per million.

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