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Madrid: The city that doesn’t cycle

July 12th, 2013 · 15 Comments

Whenever I go to Europe (if that doesn’t sound obnoxious), I’m always struck by the way the mythological view of it doesn’t match the reality.

In conversations among urbanists, amateur and professional, here, European cities are always treated as though they have achieved the highest level of excellent city operation. They are walkable. They encourage bikes. They have great transit. People live in compact housing near shops, which creates a great mix of residential and lively commercial. Blah blah blah.

Some of that is true in some cities or parts of some cities. But when you drive around Europe, as I generally do, and don’t just take the train from one charming city centre to another, you see the other Europe. Gigantic highways filled with trucks, RVs, and general traffic. Seriously awful suburbs filled with slab apartment buildings that are disconnected from any charming shops. Big-box stores lining the highway. (The French giant Carrefour chain make Wal-Mart look like the neighbourhood grocery store.) Shopping malls built on the edges of small towns that are killing the butchers, florists, shoe stores, vegetable sellers and others in the centre.

Europe is not exempt from most of the trends in North America. They just started with a much stronger critical mass of people and businesses in their historic cities. Some cities are building on that and expanding it. Others aren’t. Even the most admired cities have, yes, walkable cores. But they have also established gigantic, convenient car streets. Anyone who thinks Paris is the most walkable city should try a stroll down busy Boulevard Sebastopol or a crossing of the huge, chaotic Place de la Republique.

One of the trends we particularly hear so much about is cycling in European cities. The Boris bikes in London. Amsterdam having so many bicycles that bike parking is becoming an issue. The Velib system in Paris. The Copenhagen miracle.

But there are also many cities that demonstrate zero interest in promoting cycling. Or they’re making half-hearted efforts, but it’s clearly impossible. Rome, which I visited two years ago, has a bike-share system, but the number of stations is so limited (mostly to the central city) and the traffic is so challenging that I wasn’t inspired to try it in the least and I didn’t see anyone else either.

Madrid, which I just came back from, was even less motivated. I thought I read something in my book about a bike-rental system, but I never saw a single station and observed only one bike lane, on the huge street going down to the Atocha train station, when I was there. It’s not that Madrid is any different from, say, Paris. Like Paris, it has a combination of big car roads and small, medieval streets where cars are clearly on sufferance, proceeding with the same caution as Granville Island drivers.

So I didn’t see anything about the layout of the city that prohibits bikes. It’s also less hilly than Paris (though not completely flat, I discovered). It doesn’t snow in the winter and, although summer is blistering, spring and fall would seem to be ideal for cycling. (My husband, who is a big road-rider, went out for long rides when we were there and discovered long cycle routes along the river that were great.)

But the only city cyclists I saw were people riding their mountain bikes through the huge Retiro park or the occasional person on the street who looked, if I may say so, like an eccentric determined to ride a bike against the dictates of common sense.

It was a demonstration to me of the 1. political will and 2. culture of the city and nation it takes to get people to consider bicycles as part of the transportation system. Paris is a big, complicated city filled with aggressive drivers. But it has gone all out to encourage cycling: there are Velib stations so frequently that you barely need a map to find them. Streets everywhere are marked aggressively with signs indicating where cyclists can ride. There are separated cycle lanes on several major thoroughfares.

Every city is a different part of the Darwinian experiment in how to get around. Vancouver — we’re clearly somewhere in the half of the spectrum that has some political will and culture for cycling. We’re not the best by a long shot. But we’re a long way from a city like Madrid.


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