Four decades of urban planning devoted to cars coupled with the belief that cycling concerns poor people and a minority of convinced bike believers.
An environmentalist’s nightmare?
Not necessarily. Visit the Spanish city of Seville today and it is hard to believe that in the early 2000s cars were a status indicator and the roads were becoming increasingly clogged.
How was it possible to turn this over-motorised Mediterranean city into a bike-friendly metropolis where 67,000 bike trips are made per day? Where virtually every household has at least one bike in the garage, and where a third of the population bikes on a regular basis?
We talk to Manuel Calvo, consultant for the team that masterminded the Plan de la Bicicleta de Sevilla, a protected bike lane network for the city’s 700,000 inhabitants. Calvo is a Sustainability Senior Consultant for Seville-based company EstudioMC.
According to Calvo, the turning point for Seville came when two cyclists entered office at the city’s municipality in 2003. Three years later, a public poll revealed that an astounding 90% of the population thought cycling infrastructure would be good for Seville.
Seeing a chance to please the population and gain votes, the politicians decided they wanted 80km of bike paths built before the next elections…. which gave them a mere 18 months. They asked Manuel Calvo to deliver.
“It was risky,” concedes Calvo. “But now I advise all local governments to deliver bike projects in the first two years of office.
“You have to do everything in the first two years. It starts working and then people see it works and are supportive of what you did.”
Convincing the sceptics
That does not mean to say that the project was without controversy. Not everyone is going to be happy with the disappearance of 5000 parking spots (although Calvo admits they didn’t announce the number at the time). One journalist even headed up a newspaper article: “Useless bike lanes: how to waste millions.”
Calvo has his response at the ready.
“The whole network is €32 million. That’s how many kilometres of highway? Maybe five or six?"
He continues: "It’s not expensive infrastructure. We have a metro line that cost €800 million. It serves 44,000 trips a day. With bikes we are serving 67,000 trips a day.”
Seville’s cycling network was built with continuity in mind and as a single project. The idea was for it to be homogenous, recognisable and functional from the outset. The two-way system was built along main avenues and streets, mostly at pavement level, but on space previously occupied by cars. Public input was considered throughout the procedure and modifications made in certain areas as a result of their feedback.
He said that while it is impossible to get 100% support, the majority of the city’s residents got right behind the project and were delighted with the result.
“Everyone was talking about the success of the bike lanes. The sports shops ran out of bikes. They had to get bikes from Barcelona, Madrid and over from France!”
The enthusiasm for bike culture has continued since the ambitious 80km-in-18-months project.
The 80km has grown to 180km and is still expanding. A new master plan approved in 2017 aims to improve intermodality, safe parking options and the quality (not necessarily the quantity) of the network. The aim is to increase total mobility - pedestrians excluded - from the current 9% (67,000 trips a day) to 15% (115,000 daily trips).
“But all these policies will mean nothing if an integral sustainable urban mobility is not set in place, which means restricting cars,” explains Calvo.
Alongside the bike network, Seville has a public bicycle location system - around 2600 bikes and some 260 stations – that serves roughly 23% of the daily cycling trips. In addition, the city’s university rents out 400 bikes on an annual basis, while the Metropolitan Transport Consortium has 250 bikes which can be used free of charge for a whole day by people who have made a trip by metropolitan bus.
“The attitude of the Seville population has changed,” says Calvo. Bikes are everywhere. They are now on the mobility equation of thousands of people. Building this network has demonstrated that if you do something, people respond. It also showed that it is not a big deal to take space from cars and use it to improve other mobility options.”