Cyclist on Avinguda Diagonal, Barcelona

Barcelona, among the best cities in the world to ride a bicycle

At an honourable eleventh position, Barcelona’s challenges resemble those of Berlin. Ada Colau’s commitment to boost the use of bicycles has encountered difficulties due to her government’s weak position, but it is still going ahead. The bike lane network has increased by 20%, and there are plans to invest €20 million to build an additional 60 km.

[dropcap letter=”I”]

n the midst of the technological revolution, when smart cities are taking centre stage and autonomous cars are just around the corner, the humble bicycle is becoming a key element of urban mobility in the 21st century. Cities that aspire to global leadership, at least in Europe, are aware of this, and many are investing in infrastructures to make the use of bicycles more comfortable and safe. This results in cleaner cities, healthier citizens and an improved quality of life in general.

It is one of the biggest movements in global urbanism. Naturally, not all cities are the same, and progress is also uneven. The Danish company Copenhagenize Design Co. focuses on studying the development of strategies that, always from the user’s point of view, improve cycling in urban environments from a multidisciplinary perspective that combines design, sociology and anthropology.

Every two years, they publish an index that analyses 136 cities around the world in relation to cycling and the available infrastructures based on 14 parameters. In their last report, Barcelona ranked eleventh. The first place went to Copenhagen, no surprises there, followed closely by Utrecht and Amsterdam.

In Barcelona, where a notable effort has been made in the extension of bicycle lanes (not without certain reluctance from some sectors), the Pla de Mobilitat Urbana (Urban Mobility Plan) 2019-2024 is being drafted with the contribution of 130 entities, including associations, experts, companies and users. The strategic plan will define mobility priorities for the next five years, which will aim to reduce accidents and pollution (one of the city’s weaknesses), improve transport equity for all citizens and integrate new technologies in their management.

The renewal of Bicing’s contract for the next ten years was recently announced, a tender that was won by the UTE “Pedalem Barcelona”, formed by CESPA and PBSC, and was approved with PP and CUP’s dissenting votes. The tender amounts to €162.9 million. An amount that will be used for the total renovation of the already decrepit fleet of bicycles –6,000 mechanical bikes, expandable to 8,000 units and 1,000 electric ones compared to the current 300–, and which will increase the number of stations from the current 465 to a total of 519. The service will run 24 hours a day, and those are only some of the city’s efforts to improve bicycle mobility, which also include investments in the expansion of the existing bike lane network that will come up to 233 kilometres by the end of 2018.

Cyclist on Carrer d’en Xuclà, Barcelona

1. Copenhagen, Denmark

With an investment of more than €120 million over the last decade, the Danish capital stays at the global lead as the capital of urban cycling. Just in the last three years, they’ve built 16 new bridges which are exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians. 62% of residents cycle to work, compared to only 9% who use private motorized vehicles. The municipal council’s commitment to supporting measures that improve cycling conditions is solid and constant. Cities like Oslo, Helsinki or Paris are racing towards Copenhagen’s cycling excellence.

2. Utrecht, Netherlands

Even though this Dutch city is relatively small, it has beaten Amsterdam to the second place in this ranking. They’re undertaking a project to create a parking lot with capacity for 33,000 bicycles around their central station, given that they’ve outgrown their current 12,000 spots. Many of the bike lanes are equipped with a speed control system called Flo that warns cyclists if they should cycle faster or more slowly so they don’t have to stop at traffic lights. There’s also a great plan underway to recover the city’s original urban structure, based on canals.

3. Amsterdam, Netherlands

Although Amsterdam is still a model of bicycle mobility, they don’t seem to have progressed much in recent years. For example, the number of scooters in the city has soared up from 8,000 in 2007 to 35,000 in 2017. There are plans to improve the cycling infrastructure, but they are currently stalled. The city’s urban typology makes it unique, and combining the different means of transport that compete in it is especially complex.

4. Strasbourg, France

For decades, Strasbourg has been the most favourable French city for bicycle transport. A position that is now threatened by Paris, Bordeaux or Nantes. Its shared bike system, Velhop, is top of the range, and even includes cargo bicycles to transport goods. Like other cities, the network of bicycle lanes is being expanded with fast lanes and a radial system that connects neighbourhoods in the suburbs and neighbouring towns. Their biggest challenge is standardising an infrastructure that has grown gradually with very diverse solutions.

5. Malmö, Sweden

A programme to turn cycling into the quintessential means of urban transport is underway since 2015. They have just opened the Cykelhuset or Bicycle House, a social housing project designed taking bicycles into account and the Bicycle Hotel, which also offers tourists specific equipment to use bicycles as their main means of transport.

The bicycle sharing system is being improved, there are cargo bicycles that can be picked up at the central station and even a bicycle-based rubbish collection system is being tested. There is also a ferry which is specifically for cyclists that connects the city with Copenhagen. According to the report, they would need a more determined commitment to improve basic infrastructures.

6. Bordeaux, France

The “Vélo Métropolitain Plan”, which was approved in 2016, aims at achieving 20% of intra-urban transport by bike by 2020. They’re following Copenhagen’s model and allocating some routes exclusively to bicycles and pedestrians. It’s the only French city where there are more women that use bicycles than men. They recently approved the investment of €84 million to improve cycling infrastructures. The city’s next goal is to reduce traffic and increase the amount of bicycle parking spaces.

7. Antwerp, Belgium

It’s the best city in Belgium to travel by bicycle. The system of shared bikes will be extended beyond the city centre, and larger parking spaces are being built in strategic areas. New lanes along the port and the ambitious plan to bury the highway that surrounds the city are symptoms that predict Antwerp wants to accelerate its urban transformation. Antwerp has the potential to reach 25% of transport by bicycle in a few years, but it will require an extra effort to limit car traffic.

8. Ljubljana, Slovenia

It being declared the European Green Capital in 2016 was a decisive boost to improve the city’s infrastructure. Its small size makes it easier for improvements to be visible in less time, and their recent implementation makes them easier to expand. However, cars are still their main means of transport and the use of private cars is still above the European average.

9. Tokyo Japan

The statistics for the Japanese megalopolis are impressive. One fifth of the 20 million people who access the metropolitan area daily by rail cycle to the train station. Although tourist areas are full of bicycles, it is in residential areas where their presence is most evident. In many areas, 30% of transport is already by bike, and parking spots for two-wheels are ubiquitous in the city. The Olympic Games of 2020 are a great opportunity to promote cycling, a challenge London or Rio de Janeiro failed at. If the largest metropolitan area in the world manages to progress in this sense, there will be few excuses for the rest. According to the report, Tokyo needs to emulate European urbanism more, instead of the American one, and to improve the network of cycle lanes in the centre.

10. Berlin, Germany

It’s gone up in the ranking thanks to a recent referendum that will imply the authorities’ greater commitment to promoting the use of bicycles. With 13% of transport by bicycle, 20% in some areas, and a new system of shared bicycles they’re installing this year, Berlin keeps progressing in this field. They’re experimenting with traffic free areas and green waves for traffic lights for cyclists.  Their biggest challenge is to unify a fragmented infrastructure and include cycling planning in their global urban plan.

11. Barcelona, Spain

At an honourable eleventh position, Barcelona’s challenges resemble those of Berlin. Ada Colau’s commitment to boost the use of bicycles has encountered difficulties due to her government’s weak position, but it is still going ahead. The bike lane network has increased by 20%, and there are plans to invest €20 million to build an additional 60 km. Superilles, or superblocks in English, at trial stage and certainly controversial, can also improve travel conditions for cyclists, as well as assigning the Bicing contract to a new concessionaire. According to the report, a lot still needs to be improved to make cycling more direct and agile and able to compete with other means of transport.

Cyclist in Plaça de les Glòries, Barcelona

12. Vienna, Austria

It is the first large city that has installed a public system of cargo bicycles, and subsidizes their acquisition. It has 1,000 km of cycle paths, although a large amount of them are designed for recreational use, rather than as a mean of transport. Car traffic has been reduced in the city centre and steps have been taken to unify the whole bike lane network.

13. Paris, France

Mayor Anne Hidalgo maintains a firm commitment to bicycles, although it is uncertain if she will fulfil her promise of reaching 15% of city transport by bicycle by 2020. The extension of the shared bikes network, Vélib, to the entire metropolitan area is still underway, as well as increasing the number of vehicles available. Plans such as introducing bicycle lanes along the Champs Elysées prove Paris’ determination, although the city’s density presents serious challenges in that respect. Experts believe that Paris is a perfect candidate to use bicycles as a means of transporting goods, using the river and canals for primary transport and connecting them with a fleet of cargo bicycles for the last section of the distribution routes.

14. Seville, Spain

Although the Andalusian capital’s progress has been spectacular in just a few years, the report detects some stagnation. The plan that achieved the goal of reaching 7% transport by bicycle needs to be renewed. The challenge is to improve the existing infrastructure, which is not very intuitive for users and is not always well connected.

15. Munich, Germany

Bicycles are already more used than in Berlin or Hamburg, and they have built more infrastructures than any other German city in recent years. The signage is clear and efficient, and 14 large cycling highways are being built to connect the city centre with its metropolitan area. The report detects a lack of a more solid political commitment to reach specific mobility objectives within a certain period.

16. Nantes, France

This French city entered the ranking strongly in 2013 thanks to the determined political commitment of its council to normalize bicycle transport. A €50 million investment plan aims to achieve 12% of transport by bicycle (which is currently 6%) in 2030. A very ambitious goal, considering Bordeaux is investing €70 million to reach 15% in 2020. They are investing in cargo bicycles as part of the city’s integral logistics, and the presence of two-wheel vehicles is increasingly evident in the urban landscape, mostly thanks to its citizens’ commitment

17. Hamburg, Germany

Although in an remarkable position, the plans to promote the use of bicycles are stagnant after two decades of steady progress. They have the most successful bicycle sharing system in Germany, and some neighbourhoods are at the same level as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The city needs to improve the signage of the existing infrastructure and, according to the report, problems such as the excess of bike lanes occupying pedestrian space should be corrected.

18. Helsinki, Finland

They have a modern system of shared bicycles which started in 2016 and is quite successful. Their goal is to reach 15% of transport by bike in 2010, like many other European cities. Significant efforts are made to keep lanes clear of snow in winter, a problem more southern cities don’t face. The city has been measuring the use of bicycles since the 1930s, which is why their tradition is a competitive advantage. Old railway lines have been used to create bicycle infrastructures, although the city centre lanes need to be updated and modernized.

19. Oslo, Norway

Although Oslo is no where near Amsterdam or Copenhagen, or even Seville, the Norwegian capital is undertaking an aggressive urban transformation that will favour pedestrians and cyclists. The city centre will be closed off to private motor vehicles by 2019. They are also getting rid of parking lots increasingly fast. The plan is called Oslo Standard, and includes grants to acquire bicycles for the distribution of goods. The road to becoming a cyclist paradise is still long, and it will require significant investment to create segregated lanes for cyclists.

20. Montreal, Canada

The only North American city in this ranking has been a pioneer in its continent for decades. They built bike lanes before anyone else, although now they have to update a somewhat old-fashioned infrastructure. The Rosemont neighbourhood has become a pilot project for next-generation lanes, and programmes are being developed that combine artificial intelligence with big data to improve city mobility. Among their weaknesses is improving the safety of the old lanes, many of which are already congested.