Walking the talk

Bilbao has the lowest level of car use of any major city in Spain. Making up just 11% of all journeys, this is largely a result of the city’s commitment to develop sustainable and smart urban mobility.

This can also be linked to a dense urban environment – with a concentration of commercial activity, employment and residence in the areas of greater public transport coverage.

“We like to live, work and enjoy ourselves in the same space” says Neli Santos, an advisor for mobility and environmental issues in Bilbao City Council.

In fact, in a city where 60% of all trips are made by foot, it’s perhaps not surprising that all political groups in the city council have agreed to a roadmap for sustainable urban mobility until 2030.

The roadmap

The mobility plan, which places citizens and their wellbeing at the centre of urban development is a first in Spain and has two overarching objectives: The Gender Action Plan and Bilbao 30.

“For the first time, a mobility plan has as its main objectives a positive impact on people’s health and gender equality,” said Alfonso Gil , deputy mayor and councillor for mobility and sustainability.

“Until now, mobility plans focused on improving the circulation of vehicles, increasing the efficiency of public transport, reducing the number of accidents or increasing pedestrian spaces,” he elaborated. “With this mobility pan, however, we want to improve the quality of life in our city to improve the health and well-being of neighbours, and we want to act directly to eradicate the gender differences caused by mobility.”

Bilbao 30

‘Bilbao 30’ refers to the city’s campaign to reduce the speed on its roads to 30 kilometres per hour. For the last 18 months, this policy has seen 87% of Bilbao’s 377 kilometres of roads adopting a 30km/h speed limit.

​This has also been coupled with a raft of other measures aimed at creating safer streets, reducing air and noise pollution and encouraging a shift towards more sustainable forms of transport.

For example, the city has widened some pavements to ensure there is enough space for all pedestrians, including those with reduced mobility.

Creating safe routes for children includes a focus on the areas surrounding schools – cars in these areas are forbidden from parking within five metres of a pedestrian crossing, giving children a better ability to see and cross the road safely.

And the city has set a target of 20% of all vehicles in its territory being electric by 2030. To do this it is not only working with its own fleets, such as city busses, but is incentivising this shift for vehicles used to deliver goods and for taxis.

Gender Action Plan

Before launching its mobility plan, the city conducted a series of surveys with residents and discovered that women are far more likely to use public transport than men – between 65 and 70 per cent of all journeys were made by women.

With this in mind, and by listening to the suggestions made by residents who participated in the process, certain special actions are now in place to ensure women feel safe using the public transport network.

For example, a woman travelling alone on a public bus at night is permitted to make a ‘stop on demand’ to then walk a shorter distance to her next destination. Similarly, taxi drivers in the city are now obligated to wait for people to enter their front door before driving off.

As Santos says, “we have seen in our work that if we improve the safety sensation, women will use it more.”

This consideration extends to many other aspects of the city’s mobility planning. For instance, she continues, “as we create more bike lanes more women are using them, because we have increased the feeling of safety” – that is to say, there is no longer a need to ride alongside cars on the road.

Keeping it open

This sense of mobility and inclusion also stretches to considerations of how people move around the city, ensuring different parts of the city remain connected and opening up new areas of public space.

“One of the characteristics of Bilbao,” explains Santos, “is that it is surrounded by mountains. In order to equalise all citizens of Bilbao in mobility rights, we have made an enormous effort to adapt the pedestrian network for all types of people.”

This has led, for instance, to the installation of 42 public elevators and 20 ramps, giving access to people with restricted mobility to areas of the city previously off limits, and by keepings these services open 24 hours, it helps break geographic barriers to movement around the city.

The city’s focus on reducing the number of cars on its streets, such as by obliging taxis to wait at taxi ranks, rather than roaming around the city looking for potential passengers, has meant it’s possible to pedestrianise new areas of the city.

And focussing on making the city easy for people to walk around has meant that no e-scooter companies have managed to win a contract to operate in the city, because personal mobility vehicles are prohibited from being parked on the city’s pavements.

The result of all these actions, according to Santos, “has allowed us to have an orderly city with walkable sidewalks, meaning that walking through Bilbao is a true pleasure.”

Bilbao’s long term vision for mobility already seems to be paying off in the short term and could prove to be an inspiration for other cities.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer