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Superblocks – Both Climate Heroes and Life Saviours for Our Cities?

The concept of vehicle-free blocks has been around for quite some time, but nobody has imagined their possibly immense benefits like Salvador Rueda, a Spanish urban planner famous for giving power back to the pedestrians in several larger cities around the globe. [1]

A ‘superblock’ comprises groups of commercial or residential streets where through traffic is prohibited. Instead, they constitute of things like pedestrian parkways, wide bike-lanes and grassy malls. Rueda is known as the world’s leading proponent of these superblocks, and his superstar is the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, where nearly half of the streets have been converted into car-free zones over the past decade. The city currently has 63 superblocks and is planning to build another 48, but already the number of cars on the roads have decreased by 27%, leading to a 42% reduction of the city’s CO2 emissions. Around half of its 200,000 citizens walk as primary mode of transportation, and 15% bike.

And now you might wonder, how are these superblocks build and what do they cost? Well, Rueda and his team generally start with nine square blocks (around 40 acres) where they extend sidewalks, plant trees, add bike lanes and install benches. And yes, since some people actually live in these areas (and some companies are dependent on delivering stuff to stores within the superblock), not all cars are totally banned. Residents and delivery vehicles can enter, but only if they obey a speed limit of 10 km/h. Should prohibited vehicles enter the block, or if they exceed any speed limits, they are fined $223 for each violation. Regarding costs, it depends on the extent of things like rerouting public transport, building underground garages, creating pedestrian lanes, bicycle storages etc. But on average, a single superblock costs about $5-6 million.

Despite the success in Vitoria-Gasteiz, things have so far been less smooth in other cities like Buenos Aires (Argentina), Quito (Ecuador) and Barcelona (Spain). Less reliable public transit, longer commuting times for workers, or the fact that the convenience of parking your car anywhere become limited are some challenges to solve before gaining public acceptance. In Barcelona, the city government has built six superblocks so far, but they are planning for as many as 503 by 2050. Challenges for public acceptance aside, a study published in September by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health calculates that the city could prevent 667 premature deaths (due exposure of air pollution from car emissions) every year if all 503 superblocks are built.

 

Personal comments

The idea of superblocks is very intriguing as many larger cities currently struggle with bad air quality. I’m not surprised that they run into issues though, as limiting car-usage must be met with alternative modes of transport and new mobility solutions that are efficient and convenient enough to replace private vehicles to any extent. Maybe Rueda and his team could work more with mobility service providers in parallel to the construction of superblocks, to make sure that they do not aggravate people’s abilities to get from point A to B? Maybe we should instead talk about “mobility blocks” where things like shared, electrified and automated last-mile vehicles can carry passengers around while also connecting efficiently to public transport at the perimeters of each block?

 

Written by Hampus Alfredsson, RISE Viktoria.

 

Sources

1. 2019-10-29. The ‘Superblock’ Revolution Is Making Cities Safer and Cleaner.