Bicycling in Spain: Is there a relation to Land Use?

Bikes share a transitway in Seville
image: Stan Clauson

This article could easily be written by a member of the International or Transportation PPNs, but the bicycle is becoming increasingly important in Land Use, so it is offered here to spark a discussion about the importance of alternate transportation in community design.

Living in Aspen, Colorado, cycling has become a part of our lifestyle.  Whether it is mountain or road biking, trails and facilities exist to encourage even the most timid into this healthy recreation.  In town, year-round cyclists, some with studded snow tires, regularly use cycling to get to work and run errands.  So, it seemed natural in planning a trip to Spain (in a country where the famed Vuelta de España race ranks among the top three cycling events worldwide), to see what is happening with respect to cycling.  Our trip therefore included a week of cycling through Andalucia as well as visits to Madrid and Seville, two cities that have gone far to develop car-free pedestrian zones.  But how well do they accommodate cycling as an alternative mode of transportation and means of recreation?  It turns out that these cities could not be more different in this respect, something that no doubt reflects the divergence among U.S. cities as well.  In the countryside, some significant efforts are made for cycling safety on rural roads, and rails-to-trails is part of the program.

A Tale of Two Cities: Madrid and Seville

Madrid has gone a long way toward providing car-free pedestrian zones and pedestrian connectivity.  In the city center, most plazas are car free, but equally important, linkages between the plazas are car-free as well.  Many of the smaller linking streets in the old town have had cars removed, are planted with trees, and have site amenities such as benches and outdoor art.  Because of the need for delivery access, these streets may see an occasional vehicle, but generally vehicle access appears to be self-policed and quite minimal.  These walking streets connect major plazas and attractions, for example, the entire walk from the Plaza Mayor to the Prado Museum, a distance of 1.5 kilometers.

The next level of street is a mixed activity zone.  In this case, curbs have been removed and replaced with rows of bollards, spaced one to two meters apart.  Without curbs, there is an easy flow of pedestrians from one side of the street to another.  And often groups simply walk down the center, in the vehicle area.  There is some moderate traffic on these streets, but speeds are generally minimal and vehicles proceed with caution.  The narrow path created by the rows of bollards would appear to be quite effective in maintaining driver perception that speeds should be slow.

A typical walking street in Madrid
image: Stan Clauson

Then there are the standard city streets, which carry a substantial amount of traffic.  These are generally congested and have numerous roundabouts at major intersections.  While these are not bicycle friendly, it is interesting to note that neither are the pedestrian or mixed activity zones.  In fact, it was rare to see a bicycle commuter, delivery person, or recreational rider in downtown Madrid.  We did take a group bicycle tour of some of the inner city sightseeing venues.  This was essentially a group of intrepid inner-city Dutch cyclists, and was led by a tour operator with a flagger front and rear.  At one point, one of the tour leaders got into a heated discussion with a pedestrian who felt that bicycles should not be permitted on the walking streets.  It was fun, but clearly not part of the inner city culture to be on a bike.

So where do cyclists go in Madrid?  Typically, they cycle on the periphery, where 64 kilometers of continuously linked trails have been established through greenbelts and on abandoned rail lines.  But our tour guide advised against riding from town to reach these venues, suggesting instead that we put our bikes on the metro or rail lines for the trip out of town.  By the way, there were no bike parking facilities or bike sharing racks in the core areas.  So, for Madrid, pedestrianization is a priority, cycling is not.

Seville could not have been more different.  This city was rife with bike lanes on every major thoroughfare, which were well used.  Perhaps this stems from the fact that Seville has a large university population in the city center, but we also saw bicyclists of all ages.

Dedicated bike lane examples in Seville
image: Stan Clauson

The bike lanes are more than painted striping.  Typically, they consist of an asphalt lane, adjacent but separated from the main roadway by curbing and bollards, sometimes separated by a green parkway.  In some cases these bikeways are bidirectional; often they are provided on both sides of the vehicle travel lanes.  Crosswalks are a major design issue with this configuration.  Cyclists comingle with pedestrians at stoplights.  Pedestrians are expected to keep clear of the cycling path while waiting at traffic signals, but we observed frequent pedestrian-cyclist conflicts.  To cross a street, cyclists are provided with their own signals, separate from the pedestrian signals, and frequently have a tinted asphalt pathway to denote their lane.  Bicycle lanes are sometimes routed circuitously through the pedestrian areas within the curb radius, making for a visually complicated zone at each of the four corners of an intersection.

Incidentally, there was one traffic signal innovation that we found interesting.  Along with the numerical crossing countdown indicators, which we found at most intersections, some intersections had countdowns to the beginning of the pedestrian phase.  So you knew exactly how long you needed to wait before crossing was permitted.  And best of all was an animated “walk” icon, which sped up in animation as the pedestrian phase was ending.

Back to cyclists, there were frequent bikeshare stations and clearly a great effort to accommodate cyclists in the otherwise busy traffic flow.  However, the pedestrians got short shrift.  While most of the important plazas were car-free, the linkages consisting of narrow streets were not.  These streets has more traditional curbed walkways, which sometimes narrowed to nothing with building encroachments, forcing the pedestrian into the street or a refuge on the opposite side.  Lingering in the plazas was pleasant; moving from venue to venue was a challenge.  The absence of bollards, and presence of traditional curb and sidewalk configurations, appeared to empower motorists to higher speeds and less apparent concern for pedestrians.

Cycling for Sport and Recreation in Rural Areas

In Andalucía, we encountered wonderful side roads, motorists (including trucks) who were very cautious and careful in passing cyclists, and warning signs to make it clear that cyclists were welcome on the infrastructure.  Instead of the standard U.S. warning sign with the yellow diamond bicycle icon and diminutive “Share the Road” legend, these signs were large and bright located on rural routes that are likely to have cyclists present.

Warning sign and wayfinding sign along the “Vía Verde”
image:Stan Clauson

We also found that rails-to-trails initiatives were attractive to significant numbers of recreational cyclists, although the pavement was more supportive of mountain than road biking.  We cycled a 40-km. stretch of an even longer converted railway, linking several towns with good signage and amenities along the way.  Rural stations along the route had been converted into restaurants and toilet facilities, and wayfinding signage was excellent.  This type of cycling appears to be very attractive to families, as it is in the U.S., who appreciated being able to take children on a cycling experience without traffic hazards.

The “Vía Verde,” a converted rail line for cyclists and pedestrians
image: Stan Clauson


As with North American cities, and elsewhere in Europe, civic strategies for accommodating pedestrians and cyclists varied significantly with the jurisdiction.  However, it was clear that Spain has made a significant effort to include cycling among its recreational and tourism opportunities.  And in one city, we found that significant efforts had been expended on promoting cycling as a means of urban transportation.  While neither of the two urban areas discussed here presented a full complement of what might be called a “Complete Streets” approach in North America, each had made important strides in achieving a balance between vehicular and alternative modes.  In the countryside, cycling appeared to be welcomed in ways we have yet to achieve in North America.

by Stan Clauson, landscape architect and planner with a private practice in Aspen, Colorado.  Former planning director for the cities of Montpelier, Vermont and Aspen, Colorado, he serves as the new chair of the Land Use PPN, and frequently works on projects promoting recreational trails and pedestrian zones.  With thanks to Bike Spain.

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