Cycling increased tenfold in Seville after construction of miles of bike tracks

This article by Laura Laker first appeared in the Xmas 2012 London Cyclist magazine. Photos by adriancm and morvenphotography.

Any city serious about increasing cycling could do a lot worse than look to Seville as a role model. In six years, this unlikely paragon of cycling has achieved what very few cities in the world can boast, increasing cycling tenfold.

Since 2006 Seville has increased the number cycling journeys daily from under 5000 to a whopping 72,000 per day, from a modal share of less than 0.5% to around 7%.

This happened largely due to a 80-mile Dutch-style network of well-connected cycle tracks and a 2,500-bike hire scheme, all put in place by politicians determined to encourage cycle journeys over motor traffic.

Built on what the architect Jan Gehl might describe as "on a human scale", Seville’s narrow streets, plazas and diverse architecture reflect its vibrant history bordering Europe and Africa.

As a popular tourist destination, like many European cities, Seville’s ancient streets were designed for horse and pedestrian traffic. With four rush hours per day, as workers returned home for siesta, it witnessed a great deal of motor traffic and almost no cycling. Not surprisingly, the city’s narrow streets suffered gridlock.

Seville suffering gridlock

But back in 2005 Jose Garcia Cebrian, head of urban planning and housing at Seville city council, believed that with the right infrastructure the bicycle could solve Seville’s traffic congestion problems.

Cebrian noted, however, that for any scheme to be a success cycle lanes had to form a joined-up network that people would really use. Cebrian approached Manuel Calvo, an urban consultant and former biologist, to help design and rapidly implement such a network, and moved responsibility for cycling from the traffic department to town planning, giving the project more clout.

Calvo, under his consultancy Estudio MC, views the city as a living organism, and believes that cycle lanes need to be where people will use them for entire journeys - ie, along existing routes, rather than where it’s convenient for motor traffic.

Seville's cycling group A Contramano has helped push the cycling agenda forward in the city since it started in 1987. Co-founder and former president, Ricardo Marques Sillero, said:

“We feel this was one of the keys for our success in Sevilla: the basic network (50 miles) was made in just one year, and the first extension (up to 80 miles) in the next three years.”

Sillero, who now works with the University of Sevilla as a lecturer and on their cycle promotion scheme, adds the secret to the city’s success was its political backing:

“Political will is essential. Sometimes politicians want to check first if the idea works, for instance making one or two isolated bike paths before making a stronger decision. But isolated cycle paths are almost useless if they’re not connected, making a network from the beginning. Therefore people don’t use them and the politician becomes disappointed.”

Making cyclists feel safe

He adds that a cycle route is only as safe as its most dangerous part, and people will only use a route if it is safe from the beginning to the end of their journey. Cyclists now share road space with slow-moving traffic in the older parts of the city where streets are narrower, while the newer parts of the city, with wider streets and faster-moving traffic, are given segregated cycle lanes, as in the Dutch model. Pedestrians have priority where cycle lanes cross footways and cyclists have priority where cycle lanes cross roadways.

Critics might sneer at the fact that many of the cycle tracks are two-way, when one each side of a main road would be optimum. Also some tracks are relatively narrow compared with the best in the Netherlands, but there’s no doubt among locals the new cycle network has benefited the city.

Jorge Sanchez was born in Seville and has also lived in London and Madrid, and has witnessed the city’s transformation. He said:

“Seville is now a cleaner, greener place. Drivers in Seville were known for driving too fast, now the centre of town is less chaotic, also due to the gradual pedestrianisation of streets. I used to cycle in London and have been cycling in Seville in the last four years; the cycle lanes always make it much easier to feel secure.”

It’s not just the cycle numbers that are demonstrating a positive trend. The types of people who cycle are very diverse. Sanchez says:

“You can certainly see lots of younger and older people cycling, which destroys the myth that cycling is ‘dangerous.’ Over the last few years it is obvious there is a gradual increase in the number of people who cycle because they feel safe from the traffic. My sister thought it was not for her, but I encouraged her to get a bike and use the infrastructure and these days she doesn’t take the car to work anymore. People close to me say it is relaxing after a long day at work, cheaper and makes them feel happier and healthier. The day they don’t take the bike they are moody.”

The figures certainly stack up in terms of investment return: the €32m cycle network carries 72,000 cyclists on weekdays compared with the city’s underground system, which cost €600 million and carries 40,000 people daily.

Meanwhile Seville’s cycle hire scheme, Sevici, has more than 250 docking stations across the city, including the suburbs, making it the fifth largest in Europe, for a city of around a million people.

The importance of political leadership in boosting city cycling has been highlighted recently by a change in leadership in Seville, less positive towards cycle promotion.

This has meant the closure of the city cycling office, and the implementation of other policies that encourage tourist cycling over the expansion of cycling among city-dwellers. Not least (in some ways mirroring the doubling in Barclays Cycle Hire access charges in London) Seville’s cycle hire fares have risen by 21%, compared with a 10% rise in other city transport fares.

Despite the significant successes since 2005, local cycling campaigners are having to lobby as hard as ever to keep Seville’s magnificent cycling revolution firmly on track.

Case study 1: Morven Brown

Morven (below left, with her son Jack) is a photographer, charity volunteer and mother living in London. She hired Sevici bikes in Seville last year:

“I thought cycling in Seville was great: uncomplicated and very safe because there’s always something separating you from the cars. Also the cycle routes are long and consistent, meaning I could usually get to my destination without mixing with motor traffic at all. Cyclists are given as much, if not more respect than drivers.” When asked to compare it to her East London commute, she said: “There’s no comparison. I find London stressful and dangerous for cycling, not least because I was knocked off my bike recently.”

Case study 2: Carlos Amarillo Fernandez

Carlos (above right) is the manager of BiciActiva in Seville, a bicycle shop providing cycle hire, while sister company Rentabikesevilla runs daily cycle tours andbike hire in the city. The company also manages a ‘Bus + Bici’ scheme, with200 free hire bikes for public transport users BiciActiva works with a travel agency organising group bicycle tours, with plans to provide cycling holidays around Andalucia. He said:

“The construction of the bicycle lanes have been very important for the city because the feeling is that it is safer now and you can go everywhere by bike, meaning more cyclists on the roads and more potential cyclists.” But he added companies like BiciActiva now struggle to compete with Sevici’s share of the tourist market.