Looking Outside the Borders: The bicycle boom in Seville, Spain

by Zach Vanderkooy, Bikes Belong Foundation. Originally published in the Alliance for Biking & Walking 2012 Benchmarking Report.

Seville’s embrace of the bicycle is decidedly 21st century. As recently as 2004, bicycling in this city of 700,000 was seen as a fringe activity for elite athletes and people too poor to own a car. There was no bicycle infrastructure to speak of, and the few Sevillianos who did use bikes for utilitarian purposes (0.2% of all trips in 2000) were practically invisible on the streets and in public life. Cars and trucks dominated the transportation landscape. For the average person to ride a bike to work or school was unimaginable.


For people living in most American cities, this story feels awfully familiar. That’s why Seville’s remarkable transformation is drawing excited attention on our side of the Atlantic. In just five years, bicycling has grown from a statistically nonexistent mode of transportation to a significant—if not yet ordinary—part of daily life. Seville’s engineers built a network of comfortable separated bikeways connecting the city that now carries 7% of all traffic. It has implemented a state-of-the-art bike sharing system, offering residents and visitors affordable access to more than 2,000 bicycles stationed throughout the city. And it has redesigned many plazas, squares, and streets to make them more inviting spaces for those traveling on foot and on two wheels. The investments are paying dividends more quickly than anyone figured.

Traffic congestion and pollution are declining for the first time in 30 years. Businesses are thriving along bike routes and around the newly improved public spaces that are breathing fresh life into the central city. The number of car trips into the historic city center has plummeted from 25,000 a day to 10,000, freeing valuable space for residents to park and visitors to linger. More than 70,000 bike trips are made every day, up from just 2,500 in 2002. Bicycling has given Sevillianos a healthy, speedy new way to get around.

Designing a better city

When it came to designing Seville’s bicycle infrastructure, the city looked north for inspiration. David Muñoz de la Torre, Director of Seville’s Bike Program, cites the Netherlands as a key influence in shaping the city’s bikeway system. “We wanted to create a complete network, not a piecemeal system,” he emphasized. Nothing discourages potential bike riders more than bike lanes that end abruptly, forcing them to mix with fast-moving cars. Seville’s bikeways continue through intersections, around roundabouts, and across zigzags, making navigation a breeze — just follow the impossible-to-miss bright green path and you’ll stay on route. All the bikeways along major roads are physically separated from car and pedestrian traffic as much as possible. City leaders explain that protection from traffic is a key factor in making the system appealing to less experienced riders, particularly children, women, and older people. “Our design target is a 65-year old woman with groceries,” explained Muñoz de la Torre. He reasons that if bicycling is safe for her, it is safe for everyone.

The entire 87-mile network cost about $43 million to install between 2007 and 2009—a bargain when you consider that a single mile of urban freeway in the United States easily costs twice as much. With the core bicycling network now in place, Muñoz de la Torre says the city is focused on improving difficult crossings and tight squeezes on the streets, installing more bike parking, and launching public education campaigns as the next steps to boost bicycle use. The city expects 15% of all trips in Seville to be made by bike in 2015.

Change isn’t easy—but it can happen overnight

800px-Sevilla2005July_067In order to build support for its rapid urban transformation, Seville’s leaders had to win the favor of a public that had little familiarity with bicycling and merchants skeptical that customers would arrive on bike and foot instead of in cars. The city hosted hundreds of public meetings and charrettes—design workshops involving the public—to incorporate ideas from neighborhoods into plans for newly configured public spaces and roadways. Initial opposition to removing or relocating car parking was fierce, but business owners came to realize that streets filled with pedestrians and bicyclists create more opportunities for folks to spontaneously stop in a shop or café. Some controversy remains, but polls show both residents and businesses are predominantly pleased with the changes. The rise in bicycling is a bright spot in tough economic times, as stores, restaurants, and plazas of the central city are usually packed with residents and tourists.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

For U.S. cities just beginning to build bikeway networks, Seville is an inspiring example of how quickly results can be achieved with focused investments. This scorching hot, car-centered Spanish city is far different from the Dutch and Danish cities usually celebrated as bicycling Meccas. Seville’s story challenges the common assumption that biking and walking have always been a way of life in European cities. With families strolling and bikes rolling on avenues that just 5 years ago were filled with roaring cars and trucks, it’s impossible not to ask the question: If Seville can do it, why not Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles?

Quick Facts

  • Seville added 87 miles of new bike infrastructure in 36 months between 2007 and 2009.
  • 85% of the space came from removal of car parking and travel lanes; 15% came from pedestrian space (which was compensated for by major, new additions to public space in other places).
  • The improvements increased the percentage of all trips taken by bicycle from 0.4% to ~ 7%.
  • In 2005, the Alameda de Hercules, a major public plaza, was redesigned to be more inviting to people on bikes and on foot. More than 100 public meetings were held to discuss the plan, which required reallocating 200 parking spaces to make room for new public space. Initially neighbors and local businesses strongly opposed the changes, but now 22% of customers arrive by bike and businesses along the plaza are thriving.
  • City Council passed a law that restricts non-resident auto access into the cramped central city; the law reduced the daily number of cars in downtown from 25,000 to 10,000, drastically reducing congestion.
  • “Great is the enemy of good.” The city’s infrastructure emphasizes network connectivity, not perfection. It’s far from the polished bikeways of Northern Europe, but the protected bikeways of Seville are safe, convenient, and get you where you need to go without interruption.
  • City population: 700,000; metro area, 1.5 million.

Overturn the Bicycle Study Veto

On Tuesday, July 7th, the Topeka City Council voted 5-3 to approve $15,000 to provide the city’s part of a $75,000 expenditure to hire a consultant to create a citywide biking master plan. The mayor then vetoed the expenditure calling the expenditure “unnecessary.” To override the veto requires 6 votes and seems unlikely as the only council member absent, John Alcala, indicated he was against the measure, saying the expenditure was not budgeted and that it would be irresponsible to approve the expense.

Let’s look at some of the facts: Topeka’s Heartland Visioning plan calls for the development of bike paths and trails in Topeka — so, support of Topekans is well-established. The major says he supports the Visioning process, but argues that the city personnel can do the study. Ok, Mr. Mayor, please tell us who on the staff is going to do it! Who has the extra time to take on one more task? Name the person who has the expertise, and can do a comprehensive study in 3 to 4 months (that’s how much staff time you can buy for $15,000)? We will stand by to hear the name and when they plan to complete the study. I believe this is a political cop-out. You’re saying, “I support the idea, but not enough to really make sure it gets done.”

2) Topeka need a comprehensive plan. Too often this community takes a piecemeal approach. A little here and a little there. Suddenly we look around and we wonder how we got where we are.

3) The actual creation of bike lanes and comprehensive commuter biking network can be funded in many instances quite inexpensively, sometimes by restriping streets. The 1/2 cent sales tax cannot be used to build bike trails. Ordinance 19257 states the sales tax is ” for the purpose of paying the costs of certain improvements within the city exclusively for costs of maintenance and improvements of existing city streets, gutters, curbs, sidewalks, alleys and street lighting…” So do not worry about spending the sales tax money on this cause. We still need to find the funds, but not from this source.

4) The matching funds will not be there next time. The mayor is giving up $60,000 of federal funds. And don’t think that we are doing the taxpayers a favor! This money is going to be spent. Maybe Wichita, Manhattan, Lawrence, or some city in Colorado will benefit from our short-sightedness. Next time we will have to come up with the whole $75,000. We can probably float some bonds.

What to do? There are 30 days to override this veto. We need to let our council members know that we disagree with the veto and that we want the study to be funded. Those that are currently not in favor, Jack Woelfel, Bob Archer, Richard Harmon, and Art Alcala need to hear from you. If you know them, or are in there district please talk to them and let them know how you feel.


Ralph Krumins

Car-free, for a month, in Topeka? Brave Soul!

Joe at the Southwest YMCA has decided to go car-free for a month, to get a better idea of traveling by bike in Topeka.  It’s an awesome effort – and he’s blogging the whole thing!

He includes great updates as he learns the ways of commuting:

Yesterday I came home from work and had to turn around and go to our church’s music practice and my wife said, “Hey aren’t you going to change into some shorts?” I said, “No, actually it worked great riding in these jeans today!” Famous last words. At about 37th and Gage I discovered why the Mormon missionary I saw on his bike the other day had the right leg of his long pants tucked into his sock. So anyway, jeans and bikes without the chain guard can make for an interesting fashion statement. (That’s how I played it off at church last night; they weren’t buying it.)

He’s also looking up the actual rules and regulations on cycling in this city – which is turning out to be a fascinating resource for me!

My wife had to make a rescue run Thursday night. I rode from my house to Fairlawn Heights Wesleyan Church (http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=2969038) for worship team practice at 7:00 P.M, and as practice started to go a little long I would check out the window periodically and see it just get darker and darker. At 8:30 I thought I could make it. At 8:45, I still had hope. But at 9:15 I had to call for help. “Laura, can you drive the truck here and pick me up?” This got me to thinking about doing a little night riding. What kinds of gear would I need for my bike? What do the laws say about riding a bike at night? Is riding at night even crazier than riding on a busy street in Topeka during rush hour? Well, I did come across some laws for what you need for riding at night. Here they are:



So, seriously, check out his blog on CJOnline.com.  Definitely worth a read.