Some interesting things are happening with cycling in Valencia, Spain’s third largest city. Can we learn from them?
Imagine a city where every week you come across a new stretch of cycle infrastructure – and not just red paint but quality segregated bike lanes – well that’s Valencia at the moment.
I moved here with my bike last September and soon became aware of plans to create an “Anillo Ciclista” (Anell Ciclista in Valenciano), a Cycling Ring around the inner city centre. I’m used to hearing about plans for new cycle routes that will happen at some point in the future but this time I saw the construction work start and the entire route completed within five months. The Ring is almost entirely on road but separated from traffic by rows of concrete bumps (armadillos) and in many places also by parking spaces. It’s 2.5 metres wide allowing comfortable two-way riding and has been delivered as a complete 4.7 km circuit of the city in one project, not 500 metres of cycle lane with a year-long wait before it connects to anything else.
Valencia has lots of potential for cycling: it’s flat, sunny and quite compact. It also suffers greatly from traffic congestion and increasing worries about air quality. Much of the existing provision of cycling routes is on space stolen from pedestrians, there is also an impressive green route in the old river bed which forms a semicircle around the north and east of the city (the river was diverted after a catastrophic flood in the 1950s). The routes seem to have been primarily a concession to fitness cycling, they are very popular with leisure cyclists, but they don’t really get you anywhere. .
The city elections in 2015 saw the removal of the right of centre party that had been in power for twenty-four years and the arrival of a left/green/regionalist alliance. The new regime in the council is now clearly promoting cycling as a means of transport. The Ring has made a powerful statement that the project is about displacing cars by taking its space from them. There is also a strong message in the roads at the side of the Ring being one way whilst cyclists can travel in both directions. It is difficult to overstate just how radical a change this is. Valencia has a very strong car culture and has had for some time. One part of the cycle Ring takes out one of the six lanes of traffic that ran through the heart of the city dividing the central square from the railway station. Simply crossing the road here was an ordeal that demonstrated that cars came before people.
Whilst the construction of the route was quick it first emerged as a concept twenty-three years ago. Outline plans were finally drawn up by the previous city council but it was the arrival of the new coalition run council and in particular the new Sustainable Mobility lead member Giuseppe Grezzi that really started to make things happen. They dramatically improved the plans, widening the whole Ring to 2.5 metres and made it two-way. They also made it happen. Seeing the construction work progress was amazing and not without its problems. Some of the most car congested streets in the city were suddenly partially blocked to provide space for bikes. This did not go without protest from drivers and one of the two regional newspapers laid into the council and, in particular, Grezzi for the “chaos” that was being caused. A spoof Twitter account @las_colonias ran regular stories of how the Ring was responsible for all the ills of modern man! Of course any traffic jams in the city centre will now be blamed on the one lane devoted to cycles, not the three lanes of cars in the jam.
There are issues with the Ring mainly arising from the access points to buildings, underground car parks and side streets, but if you are going to retrofit a cycling circuit to an existing city road system such problems are pretty much inevitable. Valencia also suffers from a lack of clear design guidance for cycle infrastructure.
Interestingly, the local cycling campaign, València en Bici, has taken a very politically savvy approach and rather than launching a full-blooded attack on the council for using the wrong shade of white for the road markings, it has provided support for Grezzi, particularly when he came under attack in the press and social media. That of course does not mean that they will not or should not continue to press for further improvements and changes in the light of experience from the use of the Ring.
The extent to which the Ring will be used is of course the acid test for the whole project and whilst the early indications are positive, it is still too soon to tell. The council is certainly putting some effort into promoting the new route, something that is all too often absent following the construction of a new cycle route.
It’s also making important connections, the Ring has the potential to work well with two other Valencian sustainable transport initiatives, good public transport and a successful municipal bike hire system. This means that people can travel into the city centre by metro, bus or train and use the Ring to get around the city on a hired Valenbici.
So does this have any relevance to Cardiff? Well I think there are some points that are useful for any cycle campaign. Firstly the importance of political will. Having politicians in key roles who really ‘get’ cycling has been key to Valencia’s success. Equally, having a well-developed plan in place that the politicians can implement is vital. Politicians inevitably have a limited lifespan and if, when you finally have some that are committed to cycling, they need to spend their time designing a plan rather than implementing it you could find another change of regime happens before any useful infrastructure is in place. See the excellent blog posts elsewhere on this site for information on how you can get involved in developing a plan for Cardiff. Having comprehensive design guidance in place is also important.
The role of cycling campaigners is crucial. València en Bici have spent many years working on a practical plan and campaigning for it. They have engaged positively with politicians and successfully focussed on the big picture rather than being bogged down in criticising detail (at least in public).
The other key message from Valencia is that complete routes can be delivered as one project. The council took a lot of flak building the route but at least it is now being used; all too often infrastructure is delivered piecemeal in unusable chunks giving rise to accusations that cycle lanes are a waste of money because nobody uses them.
For me the most impressive thing is that the work hasn’t stopped with the construction of the Ring. One week after the inauguration of the Ring, the council completed the 1.6 km route that connects Benimaclet, my part of the city, to the central Ring. I now have a segregated cycle route from practically outside my flat into and around the city centre and all delivered in less than six months. The sun, palm trees and the alternative route to the shores of the Mediterranean are just a bonus!