Bici-bus in Barcelona: cycling to school in the streets of Barcelona
Can we switch our transportation to primary schools to be done by cycling?
Some Catalans dare to say yes and they organized bici bus in Barcelona.
Orestes Paschalinas from the Athens Cycling Community interviews Guim Maragall and Genís Domínguez of Bici Bus Barcelona.
Barcelona's first bicycle-school bus, bici-bus, started in March 2021 in the suburb of Sarrià.
The logic of the project is simple, instead of children going to school by cars or the school bus, these trips get replaced by bicycles. A 'line' is drawn with stops along the route for other kids to enter and pass through various schools where they will be dropped off.
Today in the Barcelona area there are 15 lines/routes and still expanding, (one of which also passes the famous Sagrada Familia) which brings 700 children to their schools and with most routes taking place every Friday morning.
We caught up with Genís who is actively involved in the bici bus Eixample/San Antoni (suburb of Barcelona) and Guim from the longest bici bus in the suburb of Sarria and asked them a few questions in a friendly chat.
Parent of two Genís Domínguez joined the bici bus movement following his involvement with another collective concerned with air pollution, and the number of cars on neighborhood streets.
A cyclist himself for about 20 to 25 years although never a member of a cycling associaton.
Guim, for his part, was active in the parents' association and he also started cycling when he moved to a suburb of Barcelona. As 60% of the children in his school came by car, he set out to make these transits more sustainable and more economic, and first, they started with the bici bus, and then he got involved with air pollution. Guim organizes with other parents the longest 'line' of 5 kilometers with an elevation gain of 160 meters and several schools as stops.
How long did it take you from the idea to the implementation of the bici bus and who first started it?
Genís: Let's start by saying that there are different bici bus operating models.
One form is what Canvis en Cadena runs as an NGO, they offer a service, with training and implementation, that works for some areas but not everywhere like in the central sector of Barcelona , as they go from quieter streets or cycle paths.
Guim: They also help families, so parents leave their children at a 'stop' and someone is responsible for their safe arrival at school.
Genís: What we do is more like a demonstration, like a critical mass. There may be a quieter route, but we take the most central road where cars also travel. We do a critical mass type because the unfavorable situation with cars in our area does not allow us to do it like Canvis en Cadena.
In terms of time, it was towards the end of the school year around June 5,6 families that we said we wanted to do it and we set out to do it.
We knew it would be a success because there were already people cycling along the route, then we talked to the school management, the town hall and asked for the help of the police, so that took some time. What we have done is talk to the 2 government parties in the local council and one in opposition. The main thing we wanted to ask them for was the support of the police, if we didn't have their help we wouldn't be able to do it inside Barcelona. Because we wanted to do it from the road, not from the bike paths.
The discussions took place in June-July and we told them that we would start in September. Of course everything has to do with the route if you have experience and if it is massive or not, but you can also make a line in 2-3 weeks by talking to the families.
Guim: We started from the municipal district and went further up.
Genís: So we went to the apartments, they were in favor, we wanted to do it every Friday and they told us to do it 2 Fridays per month instead of every week. And they agreed on providing the services of municipal police .
Guim: Back then we started small, but now we have spread so much that they are afraid to give further support.
Genís: We pressured them to support us because if we didn't get it we would just do it as a demonstration.
But this is what we do, it is only a model and it is not necessarily a "good" model as it is much more difficult although impressive as it is. We say that a bici bus can be done with 3-4 families if they go from quiet places or bike paths, however, we do something else.
Guim: There is also a political position on this, we know that we are trouble for them because we are trying to change the status quo of mobility and we are calling on people to change their habits and go e.g. at a speed of a four-year-old on a bike, but ultimately it's also a question to families if they want to change and do something about the air quality and so on.
What other kind of help apart from the assistance of the municipal/local police do the municipal districts/municipalities give?
For the Canvis en Cadena organization, they provide 'support' to train families. And Canvis en Cadena provides the application to the parent association to make use of it. This exists but not in central Barcelona (editor's note: because that's where the critical mass/demonstration model takes place as mentioned previously)
Do all the lines/routes have a police escort?
Genís: In Barcelona, we say that we have about 15 lines in different places and of these the big 10 have a police escort the others are on their own depending on the operating model and the municipal district and where it is, some lines e.g. it's 4-5 families and they go from the bike path and it's informal and spontaneous.
Guim: Many times they say that they don't have the resources to provide police but we are not at all happy with that and we demand that they should have...
Are those who accompany the children volunteer parents or maybe not even parents?
Guim: There are two types, if they are quiet routes and of secondary education kids it can be teachers or some parents... but in the massive ones where there are even younger children the parents have to go with them.
Genís: This usually happens on Friday mornings when it is difficult to mobilize people if they are not parents. And generally, we ask every child to be accompanied by the parent, although we also appealed to other organizations and bike associations and some came... and they continued to come after months despite my expectations that they would not continue to do so... after 1 year and a half. This is very nice, the support from other organizations.
How long do you close the road e.g. for 30 to 50 minutes? how far do you go? and what about the bikes when you arrive at your destination where do you lock? Because a school principal could say just as well 'don't leave bikes inside the school' etc.
Genís: Depending on the route/line I would say that on average a line is 2 kilometers and takes 20 minutes, so if school starts at 09.00 we might start at 08.30 or 08.40… but the line that is Guim in Sarria who is the proud organizer of the longest line probably in the world is 5 kilometers and they start …
Guim: We start at 08.10 and it's 50 minutes to get to the last school.
Genís: Regarding the 'parking', we also asked them in the municipality, most of the time they cannot provide it, we are luckier because next to it is a building granted to us by the municipality, in other cases some rooms at the school were used. It is also a matter of "imagination"... others have asked shop owners to make room for bicycles.
It is another demand we have from the municipality that they allocate spaces in the school to park/lock the bike for the children who cycle to school.
Guim: In our case, we have been asking for such a space for years and it was thanks to the bici bus that we were finally granted it!
Where can I find the lines you run in Barcelona and its suburbs?
Guim pulls out a Google map with the routes and the stops/schools plotted on it and he shares his screen…
An impressive thing I see on the map is that there is a line that goes past Sagrada Familia, is this real?
Yes yes, there are schools right there regardless if the tourists don't see them at 08.30, probably they are not there at that time in the first place, we have a bici bus there as well.
Genís: Because in Barcelona it is very densely populated what we need to do is to talk to different schools and organize a line, otherwise, it is difficult to find the number of people, you have to have a line that goes through different schools and it is difficult to be, for example, in two places at the same time, timing is an issue.
Are the schools private or public?
Guim: For us, in Sarria it started as a private one but now the majority is public.
Genís: Most of the schools that want to participate are public but usually they are in the neighborhood so one can walk. You would expect private ones to be more interested as they come to them from more distant places, but we don't notice that. Nevertheless, we also want to go to those private ones that have a milder interest. We usually talk to the parents' associations and that's where the information is channeled and from there you will learn about the lines.
What about getting to work for the parents, because a parent can claim "I don't have time for something like that, whereas if I go by car I’ll leave the kid in 5 minutes and off to the office/work I am with my car"
Genís: It depends, in areas like in Sant Antoni parents go to work by bike anyway before the Bici Bus.
Guim: There are places in Barcelona where people walk to work e.g. Gracia and there is another initiative there called path-bus.
Who is against the initiative, drivers or police, others? are drivers cursing and yelling at you, honking their horns, etc.?
Genís-Guim: (laughs) no no...
Guim: I don't know in Greece but we have families from Italy and they have told us that it is difficult to organize something like this because in Italy there are no parents associations, not even in public schools.
Genís: Barcelona is a car-focused city* and there are many who want to commute just with the car. Of course, when you put children at the center of the discussion, it is difficult for anyone to oppose, we have objections from the police because they say they do not have the capacity to support it and some politicians say that this is not scalable and is not sustainable. But we continue.
*(editor's note: In Barcelona plus the 4 counties that surround it (4,76 mil. of people) there are 420 cars for 1000 citizens (calculation based on numbers here) while in Athens/Attiki for 2020 numbers there are around 800 for 1000 !!! …amiable Genís doesn't know what's going on in Athens but who can blame him :) ...)
It took a while for critics to be found, which surprised me as I was expecting more opposition right away on social media, but it didn't happen. There is of course opposition and counter-arguments from a 'car lobby' (editor’s note: RACC, which is the Spanish association of car insurance, made comments that bici bus would not be sustainable in the long run) that are offended by the prospect of losing its privilege of going by car in the city center, but it was slow to surface. Generally, it's harder to oppose an initiative where it comes off as 'ok it's kids on bikes' how can you be against that?
Guim: For us, it is a bigger issue because it is in the end political, we demand what we have mentioned, but the parties use it to make their own reasoning, but for us, it is for the children and for the whole community, we take it more calmly as it is difficult to reassure those who are in a hurry or just want the car and we also had some security problems because some people have not accepted it, we had both open doors and problems.
Genís: A hot topic of discussion in Barcelona is mobility, I don't know what is happening elsewhere, but here it's crazy, it's popular and it's the main topic for local politics and we're in the middle of it and of course, we use it to our advantage.
On this subject, do you think that the success or development of the Bici bus is also due to the state of infrastructure and mobility (e.g. bike lanes, 30 km/h limit on most city roads by law, superblocks) that existed previously?
Genís: OK that’s partly true, in Barcelona we are much better than other cities (although don't believe what you read, because governments tend to exaggerate how good they are when they showcase this to international media like Paris and Milan recently) and the government for the last 8 years (editor’s note: from 2015 and via a re-election in 2019 the mayor is Ada Colau) is pushing for the reduction of cars, we always say that it is not enough because not everything they are doing is correct but the government is really pushing.
I would interpret the rise of the bici bus as follows, I think in the last 10 - 12 - 14 years a cycling infrastructure has been developed, and many people started using this infrastructure, mostly young people (but also middle-aged), they later started families and started taking their children around the city on the front or back baby-seat on the bike or on the cargo bike, and they chose the school and nursery based on that cycling structure, but when their babies got older and they had to put their kids on their own bike they said "oh, stop, these infrastructure/bicycle paths are not really for children" so we demand exactly this and that is also the motivation for our movement, that the bicycle infrastructure is not made for children and must be changed and improved.
That's when we faced the problem when we had to get the kids on their own bikes. We had issues because the bike lanes were narrow for families, and the intersections were not safe, they're good for adults but not for kids, but the bike infrastructure was there, and I think that's why it's so massive here the bici bus
Guim: And not only that but also COVID changed things, there was a 30% increase in cycling in Barcelona in 2 years, before we had bike lanes with few people now some streets have more bikes than cars it's a changing situation, also at the beginning it was only for the flat part of the city now with the e-bikes, of course, it becomes more accessible in other parts as well.
Genís: We've also had a tremendous increase in electric scooters where it's now half and half with bicycles.
Since you mentioned it, can anyone come by all means on the bici bus?
Genís: Depending on the model, in the smaller ones as a Cavis en Cadenas bici bus type service there are only bicycles, in the longer routes they come with everything, cargo bikes, skates or even people who run as we take the whole road and they feel safe.
Guim: In some places, we don't allow scooters and the police do not help them out.
How do you judge the behavior of an average driver in Barcelona? Do they stop at crosswalks? Do they drive slowly and carefully?
Genís: I think we are not as notorious as the Italians but we believe that there is hostility from drivers towards cyclists, usually when they overpass a bicycle they do not leave the proper distance. But a big issue we have is a large number of motorbikes in the city this is the main problem we have, a number is mentioned I think for 200,000 motorbikes in the city (editor’s note: It is actually 312,000 in the Barcelones comarca/county with 2,2 million of people but in Attiki, it is 700,000 for 3,7 million people! again amiable Genís it seems has not been in Athens :) to see what we are dealing with...). And they often try to avoid obstacles and pass everyone and bikes and they apply pressure to get ahead and run.
Do they stop at the crosswalk proactively? Because here in Athens we are way ... backward… and there is no such thing.
Genís: I would say that there are some who don't do that, some incidents, but here we have many traffic lights where red is respected, sometimes amber they usually try to pass it or do it just at the last second.
Some data, last year there were 20 fatal traffic accidents, 15 were motorcyclists and the other 5 I think only pedestrians... We consider this unacceptable and that’s a large number. But you see the motorbikes here a lot and for some reason, this is acceptable in Barcelona but it is frustrating.
Guim: We also present the bici bus as part of education for everyone to show respect for pedestrians from cyclists just as there should be respect for vehicles towards cyclists.
I have to ask about the app, because it doesn't seem like a very simple thing
Genís: It was done by Cavis en Cadenas, they raised money in the form of crowdfunding.
Here the parents' associations are powerful and have a budget, so it's something like 200-300 euros a year for the association, it's not much for them, although it's a cost.
Guim: However, we don't use it in Barcelona.
Genís: The app is useful if the kids go alone because you check in and check out, but if the parents go together, we don't find it very useful. But we do a different thing.
Do you have only primary education kids? Or even older secondary ones?
Guim: Well, for secondary school kids it's not so 'cool' because they want to go alone and not with their parents...understandably…
Genís: What we have seen outside of Barcelona in some cases if they have a long route to school they may do sort of an unofficial bici bus but it is not that much popular.
At this point our chat ended, we exchanged our thank yous, and Genís and Guim closed by stating:
Guim: The main point to take is that the driving force for this to happen is to find parents (even 1-2) willing to actually do this, you can start this off with very few families.
Genís: We are willing to help and spread the knowledge and initiative, we did it for San Francisco, Hungary, and Austria, and to create a network, let us know if we can help…
International News Coverage:
Demands of Bici Bus for wider bicycle lanes, safer crossings and pacification of streets
Betevé (municipal TV channel in Barcelona) TV coverage:
With Mayor of Barcelona
Eixample respira , association for the airquality in the Barcelona district (Genís mentioned and is part of)