Barcelona’s brilliantly designed intersections make it one of the best cities for bikes

Barcelona is a Mediterranean port city. With 1.6 million inhabitants, it is also the second largest city in Spain. It is known for its progressive urbanism, including generous lanes for scooters and cyclists. By moving its pedestrian crossings further into its side streets, Barcelona has opened up an uninterrupted cycle path and created more space for businesses. Incredibly, the city had the foresight to make this change in the mid-1800s!

What is special about the crossroads of Barcelona?

Most of the main intersections in Barcelona are shaped like octagons. Pedestrians walk a short distance down the side street to their crosswalk while the cycle path runs directly through intersections.

Barcelona, ​​Spain | Logan Armstrong on Unsplash

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I spent a weekend touring Manhattan before flying to Europe. If you know New York, you know that when the signal for the crosswalk changes, a crowd of pedestrians, bicycles and skateboarders flood the street. Even as the traffic lights return, a handful of stragglers tend to pause, sprinting past the honking yellow cabs.

So imagine my surprise when I went for my first walk in Barcelona and found the quiet order instead of the pedestrian chaos I was used to.

The easiest way to understand a Barcelona intersection is to imagine an octagon. The city moved the crosswalks half a block up each side street. If you follow the sidewalk, you walk along the main street, then diagonally down the side street, across the side street and diagonally down the main street.

This diagonal space houses four to six additional businesses at each intersection. This increases the number of businesses held by each block and decreases the distance you have to travel for a given service.

The elegant design of the city is very old

Barcelona seen from the sky, a dozen huge city blocks and several main streets visible.
Barcelona, ​​Spain | Kaspars Upmanis via Unsplash

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Barcelona benefits from the father of modern town planning, Ildefons Cerdà. Cerdà actually coined the term urbanization in the 1800s, according to The Guardian. He even predicted ubiquitous, self-propelled transport. For this reason, he gave the intersections of Barcelona their octagonal shape.

Cerdà insisted on height limits designed to provide maximum sunlight for all residents. He also urged the city to consider large green spaces for ventilation and mental well-being. Finally, he opened the intersections, hoping to give people walkways away from the high-speed transportation he was planning.

Modern city planners have realized that they have enough space for multiple traffic lanes and a dedicated bike/scooter lane. All this in addition to isolated sidewalks with their distinct diagonal shape.

Modern Barcelona is moving away from the automobile

A cathedral and a series of city blocks in Barcelona.
Barcelona, ​​Spain | Carles Rabada on Unsplash

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Barcelona’s current city planners are combining groups of Cerdà’s iconic octagonal blocks into ‘superblocks’. The streets on the perimeter of these superblocks are designed for the maximum number of vehicles. The city is also adding underground parking lots to the perimeters of its superblocks.

The streets inside these superblocks are narrower, sometimes one-way, and sometimes have reduced speed limits. The other streets are reserved for motorcycles and scooters. On all these streets, more space is dedicated to pedestrians or trees.

At the heart of these superblocks are pedestrian plazas, streets transformed into open spaces for pedestrian traffic only.

Barcelona is far from being a car-free city. It’s not always the most convenient place to drive. But his insistence that pedestrians, cyclists and drivers can co-exist – in a human-centric city – is an example of a way to prevent outright car bans in the future.

Then, learn about the European invention of the car or see how Barcelona settled on octagonal city blocks in the video below:

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