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Sustain to gain: February 2011 Archives

As part of the WWF's One Planet Mobility, we try to investigate possible scenarios towards low-carbon and sustainable transportation in a number of European cities. Last week we headed to Barcelona to interview municipal stakeholders on issues, challenges and opportunities. Due to its geographical location between Mediterranean Sea and the mountains, and its geohistory, Barcelona is one of the densest cities of Europe. Nonetheless, use of motorized vehicles – cars and motorcycles – is abundant. A central part of the city is layed out in a grid pattern with wide streets (L'Eixample), and motor vehicles drive unhindered and rapidly accelerating through this part of town. As a result, noise disturbances are significant and deserve particular attention.

In the broader perspective, Barcelona cannot be understood without including the broader municipal region (as is true for most cities). A trend is particularly noteworthy: In the last 20 years, the population of Catalonia stayed constant but Barcelona proper lost about 10% of its population whereas the hinterland gained in terms of number of inhabitants (Cahyadi and TenBrink, 2004). In other words, Barcelona sprawled without growth. The proportion of trips made by car increased significantly (by 62% to a modal share of 35% from 1986–1996, see Muniz and Galindo, 2005). Because a significant part of overall traffic starts or end in the city, Barcelona is occupied by high number of cars given its original density.

Of course, there are a number of problems (air pollution, noise, GHG emissions, etc) and solution strategies (transit-oriented development, parking prices, bus rapid transit, an extension of the bicycle network). At the heart, however, are probably Spanish fuel prices. These belong tradtionally to the lowest in Europe (GIZ fuelprices). Low fuel taxation and matching infrastructures allowed commuters to move further outward. Naturally, these dynamics if of no surprise for anyone studying this subject. Of relevance here is the Spanish context which leverages urban sprawl. In essence, neither transport-oriented development nor extension of rail or rapid bus system will leave more than a dent in Barcelona's transport emissions if fuel prices remain at their relatively low level. At the same time, the Spanish government – caught in a terrible debt crisis – can need further revenue more than anything else. In this situation, compensating for distortionary low fuel taxes seems the right thing to do.*

*As a footnote: The Spanish government, and with EU assistance, should actually spend more to compensate for the forced deleveraging of Spanish business and consequential lack of private investments (see Creutzig, 2011, tagesblick).