Every weekend, Post Office Street in Victoria, Spain, seems to open a never-ending block party. On the streets shaded by magnolia trees, cyclists, untied dogs and toddlers are everywhere. The streets are filled with coffee tables, and people and their families sit on benches and eat ice cream. This is how life is in this capital city of the Basque Country with a population of 200,000. Over the past decade, nearly half of the streets here have been converted into car-free zones.
“This city is my test field.” Spanish city planner Salvador Rueda said. He has directed large-scale pedestrian street renovations in places such as Barcelona and Buenos Aires, and is known for this. Victoria is a famous automobile manufacturing center in history, with factories of Mercedes-Benz and Michelin, so it is very suitable as a display window. “If we do something here, others will be able to see and copy our results,” he said.
Ascending Super Block
In the super block, many commercial streets and residential areas are forbidden by vehicles. The sidewalks are criss-crossed, and green shopping centers are everywhere. Rueda, 66, is the main advocate of the project. With his efforts, Victoria has 63 super blocks and plans to build 48 more. “This is a low-cost revolution.” Rueda said, “We don’t even need to demolish a building.”
A road sign in Victoria warns drivers that there is a paradise for pedestrians.
The idea of building a large car-free block appeared as early as in the 1920s, and is now being applied to the design of corporate parks and public housing, but the effect is often not satisfactory. No one has built so many super blocks like Rueda. In parts of downtown Victoria, he and his team have reduced the number of cars on the road by 27%, reducing the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 42%. 50% of residents use walking as their main mode of transportation, and another 15% choose to ride a bicycle. In September 2019, the United Nations named Victoria the Green City of the Year because it was “not only committed to sustainable development, but also committed to helping citizens live an equal, safe, happy and healthy life”. Cities in the United States and Latin America are considering adopting the Victorian model.
When building super blocks, the Rueda team usually starts with 9 square blocks with a total area of about 16 hectares. Then, they lengthened the sidewalk, planted trees, added bicycle lanes and installed benches. Cars will not be completely banned, private cars and trucks can be on the road, but they must comply with the speed limit of 10 km/h, which is equivalent to jogging. Crossing the block is not allowed, the camera will record the speed and route of the car, and the offender will be fined 200 euros (about 1530 yuan). “Everyone here is following the rules.” Rueda pointedly pointed at the CCTV camera on the building. “But we will pay close attention to people’s behavior just in case.”
The average renovation cost of a single super block is about 5 million euros. From 2008 to 2016, the total cost of the Victoria Super Block project was 56.6 million euros. Post Office Street is part of a super block called Sancho Savio. The largest expenditure of this renovation project is for paving bicycle lanes and walking trails, constructing public bicycle warehouses and changing the route of surrounding public transportation. Building an underground garage to store cars is another huge cost, and explaining the whole thing to the public is also a huge expense. Funding for the renovation is provided by the Basque regional government, the Spanish government and the European Union.
“We are very lucky.” Victoria Mayor Gorka Ultaran said. In his city, people’s attitudes toward environmental issues are not as polarized as in many other parts of the world: the local branch of the Spanish People’s Party supports superblocks, and automakers that employ 30% of the city’s workforce also support them. Pizarro, business director of Elisal Electric Vehicle Company, said his company regards Super Block as a business opportunity and has signed production orders for electric buses. He said: “New modes of transportation are emerging. We have complete hardware to produce new types of transportation. We are ready for the future.” The taxi driver union also changed its attitude. The President of the Victorian Drivers’ Union Aravesa Taxi Association said: “After the construction of the Super Block, our current income is the same as before, sometimes higher, and it will not damage the environment. This is a win-win situation. ”
Victorian city’s traffic monitoring camera Buenos Aires bike lane
Buenos Aires’ progress has been less smooth. In 2018, Rueda was hired to build super blocks in five communities in the city. Spanish cities have plazas and alleys that are very walkable, while Buenos Aires is more dependent on cars, and public transportation is less reliable. Rueda has already achieved some results: the city claims that traffic in a part of the “micro-center” area of the city center has dropped by 77%. But the shopkeepers complained that because vehicles were prohibited from entering the block during the day, they had to go to the store to receive the goods at seven in the morning. The owner of the glassware shop said: “People like to walk on these streets, but we, the shop owners, feel a lot more trouble.”
In Ons, west of the city’s micro-center, the city government cut its plans on a large scale as warehouse owners and retailers strongly resisted superblocks. “There are 3 million people going to work every day in this city, many of them commuting tools are cars.” The employees of the local environment and public space department said, “The policy of encouraging the use of cars has been implemented for more than 50 years, and people have been used to wherever they go. By car, you can park everywhere.”
A similar problem also appeared in Quito, Ecuador. In June 2014, Rueda developed the plan for the construction of a super block for Quito for the first time. Since then, the city government has renovated some streets. However, since most of the country’s bus routes are privately owned and the municipal government has no right to change them, these buses will still roar from the area where the super block is planned.
Even in Spain, some residents are reluctant to give up streets to pedestrians. Small-scale public protests broke out in Barcelona. The city has built 6 super blocks and plans to build 503 by 2050. A local complained to the media: “Now I spend more than 20 minutes at work because I have to walk a long distance to get to the place where the car is parked.” The CityLab website reports that the time to travel by car around the super block is Three times before, “If you continue this model throughout the city… Driving in Barcelona will become as complicated as solving the Rubik’s Cube.”
Janet Side, deputy mayor in charge of energy and urban planning, admitted that these inconveniences do exist. But she said that in order to solve the public health crisis, such costs are not excessive. According to data from the city’s public health bureau, at least 351 people died in 2018 from air pollution caused by automobile exhaust. A study published by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in September 2019 calculated that if Barcelona turns all planned super blocks into reality, it will prevent 667 premature deaths each year.
Retiro is one of five communities in Buenos Aires planning to build a super block.
The first super block in Victoria City covers the central square.
Another thing that caused dissatisfaction in Victoria and Barcelona was the increase in rents of apartments near the Super Block, and tenants were at risk of being driven out of their homes. To solve this problem, the Mayors of Victoria and Mayors of Barcelona hope to develop a national rent control bill. Rueda said: “The solution is not to abandon the super block, but to build the super block everywhere, so that different communities do not have to pay attention to the problem of higher rent or lower rent.”
Looking to the future
Rueda is well aware of the risks that cars may pose. In the 20th century, motor vehicle collisions killed approximately 60 million people. In 2004, a highway accident took the life of Rueda’s wife. He always associated the car with “the misery in the car that day”. “Cars are interesting artifacts of an era.” He said, “but perhaps the era of it as a useful technology is over.” Despite this, Rueda insisted that he “does not hate cars.” “There are many measures to reduce urban carbon dioxide emissions, and super blocks are just one of them.” He said.
In a recently completed paper, he proposed an appropriate Spanish metaphor—comparing the composition of the city with the recipe of rice eaten by the Spanish. Rueda wrote: “Paella pays attention to proportion. Even if you use the best ingredients, if you don’t add salt, the paella will appear light; and if you add too much salt, you can’t eat this rice.” He thinks Cars dominate the city as if too much salt destroyed a dinner.
On the outskirts of Victoria, streets and buildings disappeared and green spaces replaced them. This is a park composed of forests and wetlands, with bicycle paths and rivers winding between them. A busy highway can be seen on one side of the park, and abandoned car factories and some newer factories on the other side of the road. The scene in front is the epitome of Rueda’s dream: this side of the highway is a beautiful future that is almost unimaginable, the other side of the road belongs to the past, and the world is still in the 20th century. I asked Rueda if he thought he could build a bridge between these two worlds.
“I don’t know.” He smiled and turned back, facing the Super Block. “Let’s keep working hard.”