Public Works: What Toronto Can Learn From Barcelona
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Public Works: What Toronto Can Learn From Barcelona

Lessons in urban innovation, gleaned from a week spent in the Spanish city.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by Peter Goffin.

Barcelona is a modern city but not, at first glance, a futuristic city. It’s a beautiful city, a totally unique-looking city, but not one that a visitor might instantly recognize as being highly advanced in urban innovations. What sets Barcelona apart is that it does a lot of seemingly small things very well.  And the sum of these small additions, designs, and initiatives is a city that is well-connected, easily traveled by various means, and altogether more livable.

Here, for your consideration, are four ways Barcelona has made itself a model urban centre.

Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Everywhere

The municipal government offers a service called Barcelona WiFi (or, as locals pronounce it, “Barthelona WeeFee”), with 700 free, public internet access points around the city. In the downtown core, that amounts to a hotspot about every block or two.

You almost never have to go without precious connectivity, even while in transit. The City-run sightseeing company, Barcelona Bus Turístic, has free Wi-Fi on its buses, and QR codes at each of its bus stops that guide users to route information, nearby sights, and fare prices.

Bike Lanes, Segregated and Integrated

Photo by Peter Goffin.

Two things stand out about Barcelona’s bike lanes: the way some are separated from car routes, and the way others are combined with pedestrian routes.

Barcelonan bike lanes that are, like Toronto’s, along the roadside are protected from cars by armadillos—raised plastic bumps on the road placed at regular intervals. They won’t stop a car from purposefully driving into bike lanes at speed, but they do keep drivers from parking or idling in bike lanes.

Then there are bike lanes integrated into the sidewalk, at grade, separated from pedestrian space only by white paint or a darker shade of pavement. This may sound like an accident waiting to happen, but as long as cyclists and pedestrians practice caution and mutual respect, the system works. Without bike lanes and barriers cutting into car traffic, sidewalks can be wider. And, when there are no bikes around, pedestrians can safely and easily make use of the bike lanes for walking. Cyclists, meanwhile, are further protected from car traffic.

The result is more space for sidewalk cafes, benches, trees, planters, fountains—all of which Barcelona has in abundance.

Walkable Boulevards

Photo by Peter Goffin.

Photo by Peter Goffin.

Barcelona is, a bit like Toronto, a sprawling, spread-out city. But it’s also a very walkable city. In addition to traditional sidewalks, several of Barcelona’s bigger streets sport long, wide medians with built-in pedestrians paths, bike lanes, cafes, and recreation space.

The city’s landmark boulevard, La Rambla (think of it as Barcelona’s Yonge Street), is primarily a massive walking route, with a lane or sometimes two for car traffic on either side. It is bustling, busy, probably the most-seen sight in Barcelona and, despite being beset by snack bars, buskers, hustlers, and tchotchke-sellers, it keeps pedestrian flow moving.

A more peaceful example is Passeig de Sant Joan in Barcelona’s north end, geared less toward tourism and people-moving than it is toward helping locals live comfortable, healthy lives. There, the broad median is like one big longitudinal park, lined by trees, peppered with benches, decorated by monuments and fountains, and broken up by playgrounds and small plaza-style squares. It’s a vision of what University Avenue might look like with a bit more effort, and what our other main might look like with a lot more imagination.

The Metro

We’re not treading new ground by comparing Toronto’s subway system to that of another city. But there are some fundamental, uncomplicated differences between the Barcelona Metro and the TTC, and they end up saying a lot about where our city went wrong.

Barcelona has a population of 1.6 million, spread throughout an area of 101 square kilometres. Toronto, with a population of 2.79 million, is 641 kilometres square. And yet Barcelona has eight metro lines, compared to our three. They also have trams, a provincially-run rail service called FGC, and GO Transit–like system for the greater metropolitan area, the Rodalies.

The city’s transit map is veiny and crowded with zigzagging, diagonal, overlapping routes. But it all works. Commutes are quick. The wacky layout of the various lines means the metro covers a lot of ground. Each line has several transfer points to other lines, meaning above-ground transit is almost unneeded.

And, once you are actually in a metro station, your options for riding are very clear. Lines are colour coded, directions of every stop on every line are clearly displayed, and maps are bountiful. Tickets are purchased by cash, coins, or credit card at automated machines, in your choice of English, French, Spanish, or the regional language, Catalan.

The overall effect is that navigating Barcelona is efficient, unintimidating and requires minimal effort, even for a newcomer.