3 January 2012

More Dispatches from Spain

Bikes on stands
Bike Parking in the centre of Palma de Mallorca

We return from Spain again encouraged by the progress and openess we see there to alternative means of transport. Of course, they are still largely in thrall to the motor car (and moped), but there are definite green shoots in terms of a growing cycling culture. The beauty of a country like Spain is that whilst they remain very car orientated, people are very quick to adapt to and accept new ideas. They seem to have an in-built sense of civic duty that means that if something is suggested that will clearly have benefits for the civic realm then there seems to general acceptance, if not always complete support. This stands in contrast to the more overt conservatism in the UK, where new ideas are generally regarded with suspicion at best. I like to think that the focus on public space and quality urban realm that typifies a Spanish city like Palma de Mallorca comes from this belief in the idea of "civitas". Perhaps this is one of the cultural influences bequeathed to Spain by it's Moorish occupiers centuries ago.

Bike share scheme
Typical docking station

Either way, the green shoots are in evidence in Palma. In addition to the now a-typical bike hire scheme, carried out with the usual Spanish commitment and panache, there are also new cycling infrastructure interventions all over the city. They may be sub-standard when compared with best practice, such as the painted lanes that cross Plaza Espanya in a rather unlikely fashion, but there are also new two-way lanes with separating kerbs that have been borrowed from the carriageway and newly installed two-way lanes forming part of widened footways. The beginnings of what could become an extensive network are in place, mostly in the form of segregated routes - something that we can't sneer at at all in the UK, regardless of the criticisms that could be levelled at the two-way style and narrow widths.

What makes the difference is when the Spanish decide to do something, they do it the best they possibly can. Not just a can of spray paint; but taking lanes from traffic, closing some streets altogether to cars, introducing bike friendly crossings, having bike/pedestrian priority crossings at junctions etc etc. they recognise the compromises that inevitably stem from believing bike is best, and accept them. All too often in the UK, you get the sense that planners and engineers know they have to do something, but can't quite stomach the true consequences of that decision and we end up with the useless, underused and often dangerous rubbish that passes for cycling infrastructure here.

Bike share stand
Bike network map on docking station

Beyond the evidence literally on the ground, there are also actually people on bikes. There are bikes parked on stands that once would have been all for mopeds. There are bike shops doing bike maintenance and selling stylish fixies. There is advertising using bikes as the backdrop. The next time I am there, I am sure that the balance of sensible upright bike v cheap knobbly tyred mountain bike with unsuitable suspension will have shifted in favour of the more elegant way to travel, and lo, a utility bike culture will have taken hold. Don't forget that sport cycling in Spain is a major deal, much more so I suspect than in the UK, so getting people to consider cycling for transport rather than just sport is perhaps a bigger stretch, although equally more people are used to cycling regularly. The point is that when I first came here 9 years ago, a bicycle would have been a rare beast in the city. Not now. There are painted bikes on the surfacing of segregated cycle paths, and real ones riding over - two facts not unrelated, I believe.

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