España sobre dues rodes: Parte Dos

(image: Jeff MacDonald, IRCO, Portland, OR)

If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you may have noticed that my trips:

  • Are suddenly suggested by someone other than myself (or involuntary body part movements…or wine)
  • Are something I am a little too easily talked into going on
  • Get broken up into two parts
  • Include potentially perilous transitions between those parts

Of course, this could also all just be me and my flair for the overly dramatic.

In any case, we somehow made it safely over the southern coastline of Spain from the romantic and medieval charms of Sevilla to the much more modern fast-paced city of Barcelona. I was happy to find, after navigating through the airport via signs in English, Spanish and Catalan that our bags had not mysteriously fallen through flimsy cargo bay doors into the Mediterranean Sea. All parties and their equipage made it in one piece.

I was also very happy to find that unlike the rustic charm of my Seville hotel, my room in the rather posh Eixample district of Barcelona was ultra moderna, featuring mid-twentieth century aesthetics, plumbing fixtures I could identify by name and a boor-proof location directly across from the main lobby elevator. From the sidewalk to my bed I needed to walk a straight line of only 20 steps or less. So, in addition to being boorish, I confess, I’m also lazy.  Beyond that, even as our airport shuttle neared the skyscrapers and wide avenues filled with cars and motorcycles, I felt a real sense of belonging that I realized was lacking for me in Seville, despite its beauty. Guess I’m a town mouse

Dinner the first night in Barcelona – we so fancy! And I didn’t even get lost this time…

Ironically, given its more modern appearance, archaeological finds in Barcelona suggest a history twice as old as Seville’s. However, recent events (notably hosting the 1992 Olympic Games) have had a dramatic effect on the city’s development. A shift from industrial production to tourism (with subsequent increases in new hotels and increased automotive traffic) also were precipitated by Spain joining the predecessor to the European Union.

Following a recent local parliamentary vote to declare independence from the kingdom of Spain, Catalonian flags were seen draped from many windows and balconies in Barcelona, the area’s capital. (Image: Wikipedia)

After settling in with a sumptuous dinner at a swank urban restaurant (featuring a copious roundtable discussion of all we’d seen thus far in Seville and how it compared to our infrastructure in the U.S.) and a good night’s sleep (thankfully, the jet lag was nearly gone by now) we prepared for our main day of riding bicycles in Barcelona.  In our limited exposure to the city in the first 24 hours, we’d seen plenty of red “Bicing” two-wheelers at bike share docks.  The cheerful red and white bikes reminded me of our blue Citibikes back home. However, we did not use these bikes; unlike Citibike, they are only available to residents of Barcelona and are intended to promote fewer trips by the locals using car or motorbike (more to come on the latter). Recent stats show a daily ridership of around 30,000, roughly half that of Citibike. But that figure is still very impressive, given the use limited to locals, for a city with 1.6 million people vs. NYC, which has five times that many people, excluding tourists and non-residents.

The Bicing program in Barcelona, comparable (kinda sorta) to the blue Citibikes of NYC, features easily identifiable red and white bikes with smaller front wheels. (Image: Hank Chapot/Wikipedia)

Barcelona also offers the privately held “Donkey Bikes” as a means of cheap, easy transportation for tourists.  These were locked directly outside our hotel.

Also outside the hotel?  You may recall my mention of the Spanish bicycle maker Orbea?

Yup; you may not see too many in the States, but they were ubiquitous in these parts.

Our groups all rode these yellow bikes from another private rental fleet. A close look near the kickstand tells you that, yes, this is another Orbea.

After a quick hotel breakfast, we saddled up on a fleet of yellow bikes rented from a private company catering to tourists and entered the flow of traffic on Carrer de Provença. The bike lanes in Barcelona are often bi-directional, meaning cyclists ride elbow-to-elbow in opposite directions (a rarity in the USA). Our lane was on the curbside, heading east, while riders pedaling west zipped by to our immediate left, right next to automotive traffic.  There was barely any breathing space between bike and car, but there were ‘armadillos:’ recycled rubber humps about the size of (NFL) footballs placed at regular intervals along the dividing line.  These were not a true barrier by any means but did serve as a visual cue and would certainly provide a tactile warning to any motorist or cyclist who might stray from their designated path.

Our pootle to the first stop of the day took us past the amazing Sagrada Familia, located only a few minutes’ ride from our hotel. (image: JJ Trout, People for Bikes)

While not officially a cathedral, this stunning unfinished work by Antoni Gaudi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The early morning sun showed off the intricacies to great effect! (image: Brad Buchanan, Denver Community Planning)

When in doubt, jazz hands! (image: JJ Trout, People for Bikes)

We soon were seated in a cozy lecture space, learning about the basic layout of Barcelona (a grid of right-angled streets, not unfamiliar to denizens of midtown Manhattan), the problems of growing population density, traffic congestion and pollution (ditto) and the recent measures taken to remedy and reverse such issues. The urban planners presenting made it clear that the increases in bicycle infrastructure were not always easy to make, but perseverance and a resolute belief in the move from motorized to human-powered vehicles have apparently made all the difference in Spain.

Before starting on our main rides of the day, we all enjoyed a presentation by the city planners of Barcelona. The floor in this conference area was an illuminated aerial map of the city. (image: Charlie Cooper, People for Bikes)

(image: JJ Trout, People for Bikes)

And, then, on to the ride! We split up into packs of a dozen or so each to cover more ground. As I was just getting back into a normal sleep pattern (and commensurate energy level), I chose the middle of the three distances and we had a wonderful, comfortably brisk pace past many areas that were a mixture of the beauty of old Barcelona and vibrant urban renewal from the last few decades.

Behind our group, streetcar tracks for each of two directions are visible on the road surface.  These light rails move along the center mall of wide avenues, sharing ample space with pedestrians and bike lanes, while cars are relegated to one narrow lane moving in either direction at the outer edges of the road. (image: JJ Trout, People for Bikes)

Clearly seen here are the two-way bike lane (our local “sweep” guide is riding in the opposite lane briefly, to visually check with the leader up ahead), a rubber curb separating bikes from motorized traffic (as this was a major wide street), a bike lane sign at right, and a plethora of motorbikes parked on the sidewalk.  This, we soon found, is an unforeseen negative consequence of getting drivers out of their cars; not all locals enjoy pedaling two wheels, it seems!  (image: Brad Buchanan, Denver Community Planning)

Public bike share docks near a playground. (image: Jenn Dice, People for Bikes)

Similar to the “Safe Routes to Schools” initiative here in the U.S. we often saw these green markings indicating preferred routes to encourage youngsters to ride to school and alert motorists to take extra care around these bike lanes. (image: Charlie Cooper, People for Bikes)

Unlike American gas stations which cover a large footprint, the petrol pumps in Barcelona were small simple roadside structures, with a slight indent into the sidewalk area of main routes to allow safe access by cars. (image: Fernando A. Martinez)

After a few very pleasant hours riding in the morning sunshine, our three groups of riders reconvened for lunch, taking a few moments here and there to take in some local places of interest, including a beautiful old railway station, straight out of a classic Hollywood movie.

Built in 1929, Estació de França was refurbished just in time for the 1992 Olympic Games.

It was so romantic and atmospheric, I kept expecting to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman saying a teary goodbye on the platform.

Lunch was served at a restaurant overlooking a colorful street market along Port Vell. 

Riding along after our midday repast, we visited a majestic old cathedral in the Gothic Quarter. A closer look at those groovy chandeliers revealed…

…bats. Hmmm…What would Billy Bob Thornton think?

A tour of nearby City Hall included a thorough explanation of the many fascinating artworks included within… (image: Jenn Dice, People for Bikes)


…and ample, secure bicycle parking for city employees located beneath!


Time for bed after a long day of pedaling and learning. View from my upper floor hotel window; note the beveled corners of this fairly busy intersection and the red bi-directional bike lane.

Our final full day in Barcelona began with ominous clouds and a rather wet forecast.  This forced us off our bikes and onto the local subway system, which I must say I enjoyed due to its efficiency, cleanliness and super quiet trains (sorry, NYC MTA). While not the original plan to go everywhere by bike, this actually worked out fine, and after a brief ride (about five quick stops) we walked for about an hour to our final meeting, passing through El Poblenou and a few of the “Superblocks” Barcelona is becoming world famous for.

And good morning! View from the hotel roof deck.

The sun was trying…but never quite made an appearance.

Our walk from the subway to our last meeting was filled with many wonderful innovations for bike commuters. These included this unique street locking system, where the bicycle’s saddle is secured (as mentioned in part one of this post, saddles are a favorite target of thieves).

Our walk also took us past more of the author’s favorite art form.  If the graffiti in Seville was interesting, Barcelona took it next level.

In many ways, the grand finale of our trip was our walking tour of the “Superblocks,” the crown jewel of Spain’s transit reboot. Similar in concept to the pedestrian plazas which have recently appeared in NYC, these new installations provide clean, attractive and safe areas for people of all ages to gather and enjoy the city.

One of the Superillas, or “Superblocks” of Barcelona. Signs of ongoing urban renewal were in full evidence in El Poblenou.

(image: Nat Gale, Los Angeles DOT)

The flower motif is a symbol of Barcelona and was seen throughout the city.

There were amenities for every age, young and old… (image: Daniel E. Mitchell, Los Angeles DOT)

…which brought out the ‘kid’ in all of us! (image: Fernando A. Martinez)

Shared use by bikes and cars. (image: Fernando A. Martinez)

Several “kids” in our group made use of the fun race lanes provided. (image: Fernando A. Martinez)

Following a tour of the Superblocks, our last summary meeting was held in the unique green building seen in the background at left. (image: Daniel E. Mitchell, Los Angeles DOT)

(image: Nat Gale, Los Angeles DOT)

Edifici Media-TIC was designed by Enrique Ruiz Geli and opened in 2010. Made of an ultramodern plastic over an iron frame, each of the four facades has a distinct design to serve a specific purpose, such as letting natural sunlight in or regulating geothermal climate. In addition to hosting entrepreneurial, university and academic offices as a common headquarters of groups focusing on emergent technologies, the ground floor is open to the public. This spacious area with conference rooms and carrels was a perfect location to sum up our experience. I found it interesting how our group had some shared impressions as Americans abroad, but there were clear differences as well, depending on our home cities.

During a summary discussion among participants, yours truly responds to the question of just how easy it will be to replicate Superblocks and safe cycling in NYC …i.e. “Fuggedaboudit.” (image: Fernando A. Martinez)

While the NYC delegates were inspired by all the innovations made in Spain, we recognized the challenges we were sure to encounter upon our return home. As fate would have it, that very morning, while getting dressed, I found a television tourism program visiting Brooklyn. Mixed in with the host’s cheerful Spanish commentary (which, after four days in Spain, I still did not comprehend) was the occasional angry English vulgarity spewed in the background by cyclists speeding by on the Brooklyn Bridge (which, after four decades in NYC, I am all too familiar with). This by no means dampened our enthusiasm, but when all is said and done, NYC is still…well, NYC.

Another Orbea, this time a well-preserved 1980s racing bike, spotted outside our hotel as the author ran out into the rain for some last-minute tourism.

On my last day in Spain, I had a few morning hours to kill, with no other obligations aside from checking out of the hotel. So I grabbed my travel-sized umbrella and made a beeline for the beautiful Casa Milà.

Rain or no rain, I simply could not leave without a closer look at Casa Mila.

 Another masterpiece by Gaudi, this uniquely stunning residential building houses a museum and bookstore on its ground floor. 

Detail of the molt fresc “panot” sidewalk tiles outside.

My last minute walk through Eixample was also a final opportunity to reflect on the wonderful infrastructure that has been implemented here. There were several wide, busy streets around our hotel, similar to Park Avenue or Broadway back home in NYC, but several measures have created a safer, quieter environment much more inviting to pedestrians and cyclists. One of the most striking differences from what a Manhattan dweller is used to are beveled street corners.  Rather than walking directly across an avenue intersection, pedestrians must turn at an angle and walk perpendicular to a crosswalk on the side street before continuing on their way.  This slows street crossings for car and foot traffic and discourages jaywalking (I confess I found this unnatural and unnerving after a lifetime of bad Noo Yawk habits).

Passeig de Gracia, a very wide block which reminded me of Park Avenue in Manhattan, features wide swaths shared by cyclists and pedestrians near the sidewalks, with motorized traffic utilizing bi-directional lanes separated by a central mall strip.

The bi-directional bike lane along Carrer de Provença crossed harmoniously with Passeig de Gracia and, like many bike lanes in Barcelona, is colored red for safety within intersections.

Fittingly, the last thing I saw before picking up my bags and heading for the airport was a small play street with signs specifying prioritized use for pedestrians and children in particular. I was so grateful for the opportunity to see how Spain has transformed two of its most striking cities. They have managed to retain the unique character of these historic areas while gravitating towards a more humanistic present and sustainable future. Our New York team flew home with renewed enthusiasm to emulate the ingenuity, innovation, and persistence of the planners in Seville and Barcelona in making our own home the best it can be.

Looks like just another small side street…

Then you remember you’re in Barcelona!

This is what it’s all about.  Thank you, Spain.

NYC, I’m coming for ya!

Oh – and remember our poor travelers from Denver who had all those flight delays at the start of our journey? The doom continued for them when they arrived safely home, but their bags? Desaparegut. Again.

(image: Albus Brooks, Denver City Council)

All photos © 2018 ArchivistPhil, unless specified otherwise.

Contributed by Philip Papas,  Archivist at Touro Libraries

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2 thoughts on “España sobre dues rodes: Parte Dos

  1. Laurel Scheinfeld July 3, 2018 / 12:17 pm

    That was great, thanks. Looking forward to hearing about the Netherlands 🙂

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