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Transport / Mass transit

The Bilbao effect, and what the Basques can teach us about space for cycling

Your correspondent recently returned from a visit to Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque region of northern Spain. It’s quite, quite fabulous, and I suggest we all move there as soon as possible.

But not so long ago Bilbao was a bit of a post-industrial wasteland. By the late 20th century, the heavy industries on which its economy was built (steel, shipbuilding) had declined, but nothing had really arrived to replace them.

That all started to change in the 1990s, when the city invited the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to open a new museum of modern art, and asked Frank Gehry to design its building. The city’s tourism industry promptly boomed. The project was so successful that the whole concept of using cultural institutions and landmark architecture to regenerate struggling cities sometimes goes by the name of the “Bilbao Effect“.

That said, unless there are other reasons to visit a place, it’s not altogether clear that any such effect exists. Bilbao’s reinvention may have succeeded largely for reasons specific to Bilbao (good weather, good food, natural beauty etc.); it’s not immediately obvious that just dumping a museum in, say, Minsk would have the same impact. Enthusiastic commitment to the project, from multiple layers of government and from the Guggenheim Foundation, seem to have been key to success, too. (See this piece on the project from the Economist for more.)

For whatever reason, though, at least on a visit, modern Bilbao seems to work really rather well. From an urban design perspective, here are three things I was particularly taken with.

1. Building up

Bilbao isn’t that small a city – the metropolitan population stands at around 1m, and the urban area stretches for nearly 20 miles along the banks of the Nervión River. But the hills surrounding the river are steep, so by and large the urban area remains within its valley. (On the drive in from the airport, you enter a tunnel under a mountain, apparently in the countryside, and emerge on the other side to find yourself just moments from the city centre; this, to my mind, makes it a serious candidate for the most magical motorway in the world.)

The way you get so many people into a relatively small valley is to make really good use of the space you have. Few buildings in the central area are less than four storeys high; most are six or seven. It gives the place a bustling, densely populated, big city feel; yet Bilbao is so narrow that, even in the heart of the commercial district, it’s hard to find a spot from which you can’t see green hills in at least two directions.

One side effect of high density is that it’s possible to run a really good public transport system: there simply isn’t that much ground to cover, so you’re never that far from a tram or a train. You don’t necessarily need them though, because…

2. Shared space

…occasional mountains aside, it’s a pretty good city for cycling in, too – thanks, in part, to the numerous clearly marked cycle routes linking most of the major attractions.

These, though, don’t work exactly like those you’re probably used to. In some places they’re segregated sections that run alongside major roads; in many others, though, they’re just sections of pavement with white lines drawn on them to show they’re for bikes. Bikes and pedestrians are expected to share space.

As, on occasion, are cars. There are streets that are apparently pedestrianised – with pavement cafes, paved surfaces and so on – yet you still see people drive down them, generally slowly and carefully, every few minutes or so.

This, according to all the laws of traffic management as commonly applied in Britain, should lead to chaos: cyclists frightening little old ladies, motorists mowing down pedestrians, that sort of thing.

One of the more segregated bits of Bilbao’s river front: tram, cycle path, roads. Image: Google Street View.

But it doesn’t. Everyone on wheels takes things more slowly and carefully because they know they’re in someone else’s space; and, knowing that bigger vehicles might appear in their space, none of the pedestrians tut grumpily about the cheek of it. Everyone is terribly laid back about the idea that roads have more than one class of user. This isn’t unique to Bilbao, either – I spotted the same pattern up the coast in San Sebastián, too. 


Now, it’s not clear what the cause and effect here is. (Pinning this down frankly requires more research than I was willing to do on my holidays.) It might be that forcing different modes of transport to share space has shaped people’s attitudes; it might be that those attitudes were what made it possible in the first place.

But it did make me wonder whether the ruthless segregation often employed in British cities is serving mainly to encourage both drivers and cyclists to act like boy racers, who are entitled – obligated – to assert their right to their road space at all costs. Maybe forcing them to share space with other modes of transport – and making it explicit that they do not own this patch of road – could actually improve behaviour.

3. Bridges to somewhere

One last observation. Bilbao has a lot of stunning bridges across the Nervión. But none of them, best I could tell, cater exclusively for cars. So this…

Salbeko Zubia. Image: Fernandopascullo/Wikimedia Commons.

…is the main road bridge into town, the closest thing the city has to a motorway (it’s the one that leads to the airport). Yet there are still steps in the structure on either side, to encourage pedestrian usage. This…

Areatzako Zubia. Image: Zarateman/Wikimedia Commons.

…links the main station with the old town. It includes a lane for a tram. This…

Euskalduna Bridge. Image: Laukatu/Wikimedia Commons.

…has a sheltered section sitting next to the car lanes. It includes two cycle paths and a wide area for pedestrians. Look:

Euskalduna zubia. Image: Zarateman/Wikimedia Commons.

The point I’m getting at is that bridges are there to help people cross the river: they’re not just there to help cars cross the river. Transport for London should take note.
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