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Battleship Barcelona: When Child-Like Simplicity Saves the Day

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I am one of those people who always thought Barcelona would be my favorite city in the world. I visited several times, and though the weather, design, and food leave you wanting little else, there was always something about the sheer number of tourists (besides myself) and traffic that put me off the whole experience.

Barcelona-bashing is of course nothing new; magazine articles have decried the end of Barcelona for years now, surfacing most recently in the form of a new documentary called Bye Bye Barcelona. The Atlantic’s Citylab.com even did a feature piece on it, noting how Barcelona is often referred to as “Europe’s worst kept secret,” with annual visitor numbers going from 1.7 million (two years before the 1992 Olympics) to 7.4 million in 2012. The film’s main purpose is not to lambast tourism, but to warn against what is similarly taking place in Paris: an overwhelming focus on preservation at the expense of urban vibrancy, with a resulting museum-like city.

Barcelona's new bus system is based on its century-old grid pattern. Copyright: Tali Trigg.

So what is Barcelona doing about this? Well, I thought I’d highlight one interesting example, namely the revamping of its bus network. Sure, maybe not the most exciting topic ever, but what makes it interesting is partly how they used the original street design from 100 years ago to rethink its system, but even more interesting is how they took a super-simple design concept, and may end up having started a bus revolution.

Until recently, Barcelona’s bus system looked like what we think of as most bus systems: unreliable, unattractive, while operating on routes with little logic or proper signage. Barcelona took these issues and not only improved signage, traffic prioritization, and vehicles, but created something that is so easy to understand, Barcelona’s Mobility Services Director Adrià Gomila says, “If you can play Battleship, you can use Barcelona’s bus system.”

Instead of endless zigzags of bus lines, they took a look at the city and realized they might as well use their already existing grid network of streets and create all-straight bus lines. Using that simple principle, they went on to create 28 bus lanes: 17 vertical, 8 horizontal, and 3 diagonal. The naming convention is beyond simple: if it’s vertical, it’s called “V”, and if it’s horizontal or diagonal, it’s called “H” and “D” respectively. Thus, if you’re playing Battleship, or using Barcelona’s new bus system, you know that if you find yourself near V1/H2, you’re somewhere near the top left of the board, so to speak.

This simplicity means that the ease-of-use is vastly improved for both inexperienced bus users in Barcelona, but also for residents who now have an additional option besides taking the metro, car, and so on. Whether or not this bus system rethink will spread to other cities or help solve Barcelona’s “museum” problem remains to be seen, but it’s worth following as urban vibrancy surely must start with using existing resources as efficiently as possible.

 

Tali Trigg About the Author: Energy and transport analyst who believes how you say it is as important as what you say. Opinions are his own. Follow on Twitter @talitrigg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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