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The existing square blocks in Barcellona – photo: inhabitat.com

How Barcelona “superblocks” return city streets to the people

As in Singapore and everywhere else in big urban cities around the world, air pollution and traffic congestions is a major problem for city planners and residents alike.

In a report by Inhabitat.com, we are shown how Barcelona City’s Urban Mobility Plan is carrying out a plan that promises a pathway to greener, cleaner, and more pedestrian-friendly urban living to overcome or at least reduce the problem.

The plan uses the concept of the “superblock”; that is creating a mini-neighborhood on a grid that restricts higher-speed traffic on the perimeter so that the interior roads are freed up for pedestrian-friendly public space.

This simple yet smart retrofit plans to reduce traffic by 21 percent over the next two years and is already implemented on Barcelona’s existing gridded neighborhoods.

For this purpose, alternative transportation will be better implemented (new orthogonal bus and bicycle networks, carpool and pedestrian lanes, etc.), and restrictive measures will be placed on private vehicles, such as an increase in the price of metered parking.

Other secondary objectives of the plan will be the compliance with European regulatory parameters of environmental quality, a reduction in noise and number of accidents, and an increase in pedestrian road space.

One of the first areas to implement the plan is a neighborhood of 400 M by 400 M nine square blocks

In the current nine square blocks, motorized traffic passes through all roads at 50 kilometers per hour but under the superblock plan, the inner four intersecting roads will be reclaimed for public space. Private vehicles may use those roads but will be restricted to speeds of 10 kilometers per hour.

According to the plan, the scheme could free up 160 intersections.

A "Superblock" – photo: inhabitat.comAn existing Barcellona "Superblock" – photo: inhabitat.com

In the current nine square blocks, motorized traffic passes through all roads at 50 kilometers per hour – photo: inhabitat.comIn the current nine square blocks, motorized traffic passes through all roads at 50 kilometers per hour – photo: inhabitat.com

The change of motorized traffic flow – image: inhabitat.comThe change of motorized traffic flow – image: inhabitat.com

The inner four intersecting roads will be reclaimed for public space. Private vehicles may use those roads but will be restricted to speeds of 10 kilometers per hour - image: inhabitat.com

The light green areas are designated future green space – image: inhabitat.comThe light green areas are designated future green space – image: inhabitat.com

Janet Sanz, City Councillor for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility said to the Guardian, “This plan sums up the essence of urban ecology, our objective is for Barcelona to be a city to live; as a Mediterranean city, its residents spend a long time on the streets.”

“Those streets need to be second homes or extensions of one’s residence; public spaces need to be the spaces to play, where green is not an anecdote – where the neighborhood’s history and local life have a presence.”

Braess’s paradox

An article in Scientific Americans wrote that researchers analyzing a commute from Harvard Square to Boston Common found that the solution to address traffic jams hinges on a theory, the Braess’s paradox. Which suggest that the improvement of a malfunctioning network can be accomplished by removing certain parts of it

Michael Gastner, a computer scientist at the Santa Fe Institute, said. “Because selfish drivers optimize a wrong function, they can be led to a better solution if you remove some of the network links.”

How so? In part, because closing roads make it more difficult for individual drivers to pick the best - and most selfish - route.

In the Boston example, the team found that the delay caused by selfish driving can be reduced by closing six roads.

Another kind of lawlessness could speed travel as well - a traffic design strategy known as shared streets. The practice removes traffic lights, street markings, and boundaries between the street and sidewalk.

The idea is that the lack of traffic regulation forces drivers to take more responsibility for their actions.

“The more uncomfortable the driver feels, the more he is forced to make eye contact on the street with pedestrians, other drivers and to intuitively go slower,” explains Chris Conway, a city engineer with Montgomery, Scientific American wrote. Other publications also touched on the matter, such as "Plus Math Magazine" that wrote an article, “Want less traffics? Built fewer roads!”

Other benefits in reducing the number of roads are the lowering of ambient temperature due to the retention of the sun's heat by the roads and compelling drivers to switch to public transportation.

Singapore's solution to reduce traffic jams, arguably, should not be increasing the number of roads at the expense of precious green space (such as Bukit Brown cemetery), but to reduce and streamline the existing network and to improve and expand the current public transportation system.