Our editor went to Barcelona, her first trip abroad as a city planning student. These are her reflections and observations regarding Barcelona’s infrastructure, mass transit, urbanism and architecture.
Text: Tina Lam
Photos: Tony Nguyen and Tina Lam
Murphy’s law postulates that anything which can go wrong, will go wrong. And that was exactly how my trip to Barcelona started. Delayed plane: check. Nationwide taxi strike: check. Uber pulling out: check. Getting to the wrong hotel at 2 am, missing the last bus to the right hotel and having the data on your cell stop working: check, check, check. At this point you want to cry, but due to the absurdity of the situation and exhaustion you have no choice but to laugh and crack open that bottle you bought in the airport’s duty free store.
The disastrous backdrop forced me to interact and understand Barcelona on a far more intimate level than I had expected to. I had to learn how the city’s public transport worked, although that was the best way to experience the Cerda Plan. Being a well-seasoned traveler, I made sure we bought the Hola Barcelona Card issued by the Área de Barcelona metropolitá (ATM). It’s their version of the Ruter-card, except there were buses that didn’t accept the card. The Barcelona mass transit system is overwhelming, even for someone who is used to the MTA (the New York system) and the London tube. A lot of it has to do with graphic design issues (why the small unreadable fonts, ATM?) and the fact that Barcelona is huge. Barcelona boasts trams, buses and subways, and as the city planning student I am, I rode them all.
Several things caught my attention as a future planner. Firstly, the bike lanes. Barcelona has some really nice bike lanes. They are very clearly marked, sometimes even with another colour, and certain lanes even have directions marked on them. I even observed that in some stretches the lanes where lined with low cement blocks to protect the cyclists. They are also very well-connected, unlike Oslo where they can suddenly disappear.
The second thing that struck me was the way they organised the streets. On some of the larger streets and avenues, there were three pavements; one on either side and one in the middle, with traffic on both sides. Despite allocating a lot of space for the cars, there was also a lot of space for people. Sure, the pavement in the middle was an obvious tourist trap, filled with mediocre paella joints and souvenirs, but it was nice to see so much activity in the middle of a place where you would expect a lot of traffic. I also, adored the maze of tiny alleyways. I do enjoy varied and people-friendly ways of organising streets.
This brings me to the next observation- the height of the buildings in Barcelona’s city center. Few buildings reached over 4 or 5 stories, which I personally believe is the ideal height for buildings in city centers for many reasons, which could be the topic of another article. You never felt suffocated and your sight was never fully blocked. Not that Barcelona doesn’t have monstrous-sized buildings and extravagant monuments (Hello Familia Sagrada and everything else Gaudi made).
Lastly: the space for protests. Some background information; the strike was induced by the lack of regulations for services such as Uber. During the strike, the taxi chauffeurs occupied an entire avenue by parking on it, at times honking their horns for several minutes while their supporters cheered them on. However, it’s not just the streets that are being used as venues for protests. The Catalonian call for independence was also clearly marked on people’s homes, particularly their balconies, many of which held flags and posters demanding independence from Spain.
Beforehand I had read articles about the rise of overtourism and subsequent protests, and was warned there could be some heated interactions. Suffice it to say, I was paranoid and pestering the others about being a “socially conscious tourist”. So as a precaution we never uttered the “U-word” (Uber) or the “A-word” (AirBnB) out loud, but we did eat at McDonalds ONCE (we needed the WiFi). We didn’t end up meeting any hostile inhabitants as feared- au contraire, at several occasions we were offered unsolicited help from locals whenever they saw us looking confused at a bus stop. The help was in Spanish, but it’s the thought that counts. Barcelona summarised: infrastructure and mass transit extravaganza, tapas, the Cerda plan and Gaudi.
Here are some of the Gaudi buildings I gaped at.