The Barcelona Superblock of Poblenou

Guest blog by Mark Wagenbuur, editor of Bycycle Dutch
Where once traffic roared you can now hear the pleasant sound of children laughing and playing. The Superblock of Poblenou is a pilot project to show what the city of Barcelona will be like when the plans of the superblocks become a reality. The difference in sound and atmosphere between the streets inside the superblock and the traditional streets in the rest of the city is amazing. It should convince the sceptics that the city streets of the future should not be designed for motor traffic, but for people.

I visited Barcelona late October to be part of an Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) “focused on how to achieve more liveable cities, which are more sustainable, healthier and safer, through the implementation of new models of urban mobility.” The congress was organised by the Federación Iberoamericana de Urbanistas (FIU) and sponsored by the City Council of Barcelona and the World Urban Campaign (UN-HABITAT). I spoke in a session called “Disputant l’hegemonia cultural al Cotxe” (Contesting the cultural hegemony of the car). Not that the objective would be to get rid of the car completely, but its role in the cities of the future should be completely revised. This congress was not just about Barcelona, but having a living lab so close to the venue meant most delegates got to visit the Superilla del Poblenou as the name of the superblock is in Catalan. This superblock is showing us what cities can be like when you do not design first and foremost for the private car.

I must mention that this was an interesting time to visit Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. There was a noticeable political tension, especially when all the delegates were invited to a reception at city hall, right opposite the parliament building. The plane from Eindhoven to Barcelona was practically empty and so were many restaurants on the boulevard on the Mediterranean Sea, meaning many tourists must have postponed their trip. But while there were a lot of people waving flags and you could see banners on buildings, it didn’t really feel unsafe. The moment that independence was declared, on Friday 27 October, I was already in a taxi to the airport for my flight back.

Barcelona is a city of 1.6 million people; totally different from any city in the Netherlands and yet there are similarities. The city wants to be more for people than for cars. Cars pose the same space issues to Barcelona as they do to any city, simply because cars are so terribly space inefficient. This universal problem leads to a universal search for solutions. Barcelona has a very specific street pattern. A straight street grid with the corner of every block ‘cut off’. This leads to octagonal spaces between the blocks that are as big as a town’s square. This grid was designed in the mid-19th century, before the car existed. These spaces between the blocks were meant as neighbourhood squares where people could meet each other. All that space is now used for motor vehicles, which means a staggering 85% of the city’s space is dedicated to the car.

The city would like to bring back the original purpose of the city space by dedicating some of the octagonal intersections to people again. This is the core of the Superblock plan from the Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona for 2013-2018. (in English PDF)

I see similarities to the superblock plan and what cities in the Netherlands are doing with parts of their urban areas. You introduce a hierarchy to the city streets. Some are for through traffic and some are only for residential traffic. Through traffic is forced to go around the areas where people live their lives. The difference being that the Dutch areas of the city around which motor traffic is led are much bigger than the superblocks are. With through traffic gone you have a lot less noise and pollution and there is a lot more space to give to people for active travel, recreation and other activities.

This is how Barcelona describes the Superblocks in just a few sentences:

Through the Superblocks program, Barcelona is redesigning the city’s streets to limit traffic and increase the amount of green and recreational spaces available to citizens. The new program changes traditional city blocks into clusters of “superblocks,” where perimeter streets allow through traffic, but inner streets are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. So far, the city has created Superblocks in four pilot neighborhoods, and by 2019, it expects the program will achieve CO2 emissions reductions of between 20% and 75%. The Superblocks program does not involve major physical changes, which allows for experimentation and reversibility. The project is part of a larger Urban Mobility Plan, a strategic measure of Barcelona’s Climate Commitment, expected to decrease traffic by 21% while extending car-free spaces by more than 23 hectares and adding 300 km of bike lanes. This measure will reduce CO2 emissions by 159,100 metric tons per year.

From the four pilot superblocks I visited the Superilla del Poblenou. It was opened in September 2016. The first measures were cheap and would have been reversible: painted lines, plants in pots and simple seating. But from fall 2017 the city would be building more permanent features here, and I could clearly see that was happening. As you will also see in my video, two children’s playgrounds were almost finished. Indeed, last weekend the children finally got to play in these playgrounds for the very first time. That is really filling the streets with life, as the motto on the banners is “omplim de vida els carrers”, something that not everybody is convinced about. One opponent said the city area is deserted after 9pm and because there are no cars she feels socially unsafe. Apparently, she needs cars to feel safe in the street, an upside-down world view. Another spokesperson of a group opposing the superblocks claims a simple trip became much longer: from 900 metres it increased to 2,700 metres. The poor fellow… But if the superblocks make 900 metre car trips more difficult, forcing people to use alternatives, they serve a good purpose in my opinion.

I think the Superilla del Poblenou already looks very attractive. I have spoken with residents who are very happy with it. They were so proud of their new neighbourhood that they invited a number of delegates into their homes to look at the revived city space from above. Other pilot projects have proven; the more permanent they become the more the resistance wears of. In response to a protest councillor Janet Sanz said: “we will continue to work on your goal, which is to make a more liveable city, the superblocks are the guarantee to having a more human city, traffic calmed and less polluted”.

My video about my trip to Barcelona and the Superblock of Poblenou in particular.

Walking and cycling get a huge boost from the World Health Organisation

By John Whitelegg

We have always known that walking and cycling are unambiguously good for individual and community health. Mayer Hillman dealt with walking in a thorough, scientific and policy relevant manner in his 1979 book (with Anne Whalley), “Walking is transport”. He went on to do the same again in “Cycling: towards health and safety” in 1992. We also know that road traffic danger and worries about walking and cycling in and near heavy traffic and often speeding traffic is a huge deterrent to doing something that is intrinsically healthy, inexpensive and supportive of lively, active communities. As is often the case in transport, knowledge, science and evidence is not valued and not a part of decision-making. Anyone who has sat in a Council planning committee meeting considering new car-dependent developments will know that the outcome will be huge increases in car parking numbers, very expensive increases in road capacity and truly dreadful walking and cycling environments.

It is, therefore no surprise at all that walking and cycling are in decline in spite of the very strong and often misleading propaganda that attempts to convince us that cycling is thriving.

The problem we are all dealing with is the deeply embedded commitment in all public policy to promote cars and lorries and demote walking and cycling but perhaps things may now change. This month the World Health Organisation in Geneva, after extensive discussion and consultation, has produced a draft global strategy on physical activity.
This is significant because the WHO is a UN organisation charged with giving guidance to every country on the planet and that guidance will now include ways of boosting walking and cycling, shifting transport spending so that a much larger proportion goes into walking and cycling, urban design to create environments that support physical activity including walking and cycling and 30 kph speed limits.

It is of course possible that such guidance will not have much impact on those who make decisions about transport policy in Britain e.g. the truly dreadful M4 relief road in South Wales at £1.1 billion for 22 km and the wasteful spending of £14 million in Shrewsbury (Shropshire Council) on 2 roundabouts and a new road. Nothing the WHO can do will shift unintelligent thinking in our councils in the direction well-balanced intelligent, health promoting thinking based on Vision Zero and 30 kph. It is still a very good thing that we have the WHO “on-side” and it is up to all those who want to eliminate deaths in the traffic world (Vision Zero) and improve public health to welcome the WHO contribution and to use it where it matters which is in ever council chamber in Britain and in every discussion with MPs and those who would like to be MPs

The WHO draft strategy (Global Action Plan on Physical Activity) can be found here.

Consultation will be open until 22 September 2017.
Member States, UN organizations and non-State actors are invited to submit their comments by email.

John Whitelegg is a member of the WHO Strategic Advisory Network for the Development of the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity

Principles of Sustainable Safety in the Netherlands

Guest blog by Mark Treasure. First published on As Easy as Riding a Bike

The N470 is a main road that runs east from the Dutch city of Delft, connecting it with the city of Zoetermeer. It is 12 kilometres long between the junctions with the A13 motorway (bypassing Delft) and the A12 motorway (which runs between The Hague and Utrecht).

From Google Maps

As can be seen from the map above, it is, effectively, a bypass of the town of Pijnacker, bending south around it. Before this road was opened in 2007, a large proportion of the motor traffic running between Delft and Zoetermeer would have passed through the town. Now all that motor traffic is far away from human beings. This applies both at the large large scale – the way the road is built away from urban areas – and also at the scale of the road itself, where, as well shall see in this post, human beings are kept completely separated from it.

This modern road has been built according to the principles of Sustainable Safety, or Duurzaam Veiling – the Dutch approach to road safety. This programme was only developed in the mid 1990s, so it is relatively recent, but it completely underpins the way roads and streets in the Netherlands, both old and new, are designed and built to maximise the safety of human beings. The N470 is an excellent example of these principles in action, and this post will look at them in turn.


Perhaps one of the most important principles of Sustainable Safety, ‘Functionality’ means that every road and street in the Netherlands should have a single function – mono-functionality – and that every region should classify their roads and streets accordingly, either as a

  • Through road – for fast traffic, travelling longer distances, in large volumes. Motorways, trunk roads, bypasses, and so on. Roads humans won’t ‘engage with’, by design.
  • Access road – the ‘end destination’ for journeys – places where people live, work, shop, relax, and so on.
  • Distributor road – the roads that connect up the through roads and access roads.

Quite clearly the N470 falls into the ‘through road’ category. It is a road for transporting people from A to B; it is most definitely not a road that people will be exposed to in any form. There are only three junctions between the outskirts of Delft and Zoetermeer, all turbo roundabouts around Pijnacker, which human beings cannot go anywhere near. It is effectively hermetically sealed away from the environment it is travelling through – walking and cycling are entirely separated, via underpasses, and even other roads are again grade-separated.

Here the N470 goes into an underpass to avoid any connection with a rural access road. From Streetview


This principle applies to the mass, speed and direction of road users. Heavy objects should not share space with light ones; fast objects should not share space with slow ones; and objects should be travelling in the same direction. Differences in mass, speed and direction should be minimised as much as possible.

We can see these principles clearly in operation in the design of the N470 road. Perhaps the most obvious application of homogeneity is that light objects – human beings – are completely designed out of this road. They go nowhere near it. In fact the photograph below is about the closest you can get.


The three junctions on this stretch of road – two at the end, and one in the middle – are all turbo roundabouts, and all have total separation between human beings and motor traffic.

The roundabout at the Delft end of the N470 has signs explicitly banning walking and cycling from the roundabout – but really nobody would choose to negotiate the roundabout at surface level on foot, because of a fast, convenient cycle road to the side, that bypasses it completely.


The roundabout in the middle is another turbo roundabout, again negotiated by an underpass – or, perhaps more specifically, where the road has been built up on an embankment with a bridge.


And the final roundabout at the Zoetermeer end is exactly the same, with two underpasses allowing people to negotiate the arms of the the roundabout, complete with noise barriers. As with the previous example the roads and roundabout have been built up high so that cycling remains at ground level, at the same level as buildings in the neighbourhood. These are bridges, more than underpasses.


I did manage to scramble up the bank here to take a photo of the roundabout – narrow lanes with hard physical dividers, combined with heavy, fast traffic, means that this is not somewhere you would want to be on a bike.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-00-49-48Especially when you can bypass it, completely oblivious to the traffic overhead.


But of course Sustainable Safety applies to all users of the road network, not just people cycling. The road is designed in a way to keep motorists safe too.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-00-57-49Perhaps most notable is the median between the two lanes, that prevents any attempts at overtaking. The speed limit on this road is 80kph (about 50mph) and that applies uniformly to all vehicles, from HGVs right down to small cars. Quite sensibly, if everyone is travelling at the same speed, there can be no justification for overtaking, and the design prevents people from even attempting to do so.

A couple of years ago the DfT raised the speed limit for HGVs on single carriageway roads from 40mph to 50mph, partially on the grounds that it would (allegedly) reduce the temptation on the part of some drivers to indulge in dangerous overtakes. But the Netherlands has solved this problem at a stroke by equalising the limit for all users at 80kph, and by simply banning overtaking altogether on this category of road (and physically preventing overtaking in new road design).

All Dutch roads of this type have a continuous solid line, forbidding overtaking, and an equalised 80kph speed limit

Overtaking presents an unacceptably high level of danger – it involves vehicles occupying the same space but travelling in completely the opposite direction, at great speed. The opposite of homogeneity! It is much safer to ban it, and to simply design it out of these roads altogether. On the N470 all vehicles are travelling in the same direction at all times, and at approximately the same speed. Overtaking conflicts have been removed, as have any turning conflicts, with no motor vehicles crossing the paths of other motor vehicles – because there are no junctions.

Another implication of the principle of homogeneity is that mopeds (which aren’t capable of travelling at 80kph in any case) are banned from these roads, and instead placed on the cycle path, alongside people walking, cycling and jogging. This makes sense according to the principle of homogeneity – their mass and speed is much closer to that of pedestrians and cyclists than it is to the vehicles on the road.



Another principle of Sustainable Safety is ‘forgivingness’, which implies pretty much what you would expect from the title. Essentially, mistakes by road users should not result in death or serious injury. Road and street design should account for the fact that human beings are fallible, and will inevitably make mistakes.

We see this principle reflected in a number of aspects of the design of the N470 road. The road lanes themselves are narrow, to help ensure that people do not exceed the 80kph limit, but there are large overrun areas on either side of the road, composed of a concrete mesh.


Probably not very enjoyable to drive over, but if you do drift off the road, you won’t die.

Naturally, forgivingness also applies to people cycling. It lies behind the systematic removal of bollards from Dutch cycle paths, where at all possible. Bollards are not good things to crash into, and can cause serious injury and death. It is definitely preferable to have the occasional driver venturing (either mistakenly or deliberately) onto a cycle path than it is to have a permanent hazard on it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also means that kerbs and other elements of cycling infrastructure should allow mistakes to happen, without serious consequences.

New cycle infrastructure in the city of Delft, with a forgiving, essentially crash-proof kerb

And, of course, at a higher level, the fact that there aren’t any human beings outside of motor vehicles on the N470 road, or even near it, means that cycling is very safe. The fact that Britain persists with accommodating cycling on busy 60 or even 70mph roads is extraordinary by objective comparison – the consequences of errors and mistakes when you have such enormous differences in mass and speed in the same space will be deadly.

Trucks travelling at 80kph on the right; a father with children in a cargo bike, far to the left. These two should not be combined, for very obvious reasons


A better way of expressing ‘predictability’ would be ‘instantly recognisable road design’. The users of a road or a street should understand how they are expected to behave, from the appearance of that road or street. The design should be unambiguous. For instance, if you want motor vehicle users to travel at 20mph, the road or street should look like that, and it should make the majority of users travel at no more than that speed.

From the photographs in this post you won’t need me to tell you that the appearance of the N470 will obviously inform its users that it is a through road! There are no junctions; no interactions with non-motorised users; a median; and a design that suggests a speed of 50mph or so. As already mentioned, the design of the N470 should make users travel at or around this speed – the speed limit should be self-enforcing. Design should lead behaviour – we should not expect people to do unnatural things.


In a nutshell, Sustainable Safety is really about a strategic separation of fast, heavy objects from slower moving, lighter ones, across an entire country, both along roads like the N470, passing through rural areas, but also in urban areas. It is universal.

It is noteworthy that there are multiple cycle routes between Delft and Zoetermeer, all of them completely separate from the road network. Some parts of these are shown below. These cycle routes pass through the places where people actually live and work, while the motor traffic is shielded away from human beings. All these routes are more direct than the N470, or alternative driving routes on the motorways.

The cycle route in and out of Delft

Another route between Delft and Zoetermeer, as it passes under the A12 motorway.

And another route between Delft and Zoetermeer - this one an access road (connecting to a small number of properties) that only permits driving in one direction.

So despite the name, Sustainable Safety is not just about safety, but also about creating more attractive and more pleasant places for people to live, work, shop, and relax. People can still drive, of course, and with great ease, but their journeys will be separated to the greatest possible extent from human beings. It is a bold and ambitious project, but one that, despite only being a few decades old, has had dramatic and impressive consequences. We should be paying close attention.


You can read more about Sustainable Safety in a number of places –