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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Traffic Jam

I have been paying rather close attention to the manner in which traffic is managed here in Valencia. As a cyclist I am also very interested in how bicycles are being integrated into the urban transportation model. As a sort of by-product of these two interests I also recognize ways in which pedestrian traffic could be encouraged. I am also a consumer of mass transit as I frequently use the Valencia metro (and now and then I hop on a bus). I have made no secret of my hatred of the automobile but I am also enough of a realist to understand that the car will probably be with us for many years to come. I just don’t understand why Valencia spends so much money to encourage people to drive their cars instead of opting for mass transit, walking or cycling.

Something that drives me crazy is when I notice how the city has widened streets for automobiles when the current traffic patterns simply don’t warrant this extravagance. Why make more lanes than are necessary? All this does is send the message that driving is the most favored method of getting from one point in the city to another. These three and four lane streets come at the expanse of adequate sidewalks and bike paths. There are so many streets in Valencia that could use one less lane for cars in order to put in a bike path, widen the sidewalks, or both.

I should have started off by stating that I think that Valencia has an excellent mass transit system. The metro is fast and efficient and ever growing. Buses are everywhere, easy to use, and inexpensive. The city also has great bike paths that crisscross the city as well as venture out into the neighboring countryside. The new bike path to El Saler beach is getting more and more popular on weekends. On some Sundays there are actually traffic jams on the bike path. The trail is less than two years old so a lot of locals don’t even know about it yet. I can’t understand why anyone would drive to the beach when it is so easy to get there on a bike.

I just think that it is unfortunate and short-sighted to place so much emphasis on automobiles in the urban transportation model. Every time a street is widened to make more room for cars, pedestrians and cyclists lose something in the deal. Every kilometer-per-hour increase in the speed of automobile traffic is an added danger for people on foot or on bicycles. Every dollar spent to expand public parking is money that could have been spent to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

The way I see it, a lot of the automobile traffic here in Valencia is just so completely unnecessary. People have very short distances to travel. They probably take more time looking for a place to park than they did driving to wherever they are going. There are other, much more efficient options open to people. Bicycles should be encouraged throughout the city. For people to feel safe on bikes there needs to be more dedicated bike paths everywhere. I am an extremely experienced and aggressive cyclist yet there are many streets in Valencia where I refuse to ride for fear of being flattened by cars. Drivers need to be forced to respect pedestrians and cyclist, something the police here are very loath to do. At many intersections drivers only have a yellow caution light at the crosswalks which means that as a pedestrian you are taking your life in your hands just to cross the street on the green “walk” signal.

Valencia has a lot of things in its favor to encourage bike traffic. They city is on level ground (nothing here like the hills in Seattle), the weather is favorable for cycling almost year-round, and distances between points in the city are not very great. Reasons not to drive a car are innumerable with lack of parking topping the list. I think that with just a bit of encouragement from the local government Valencia could improve on the dismal amount of bike commuters it has now (1.6%). They need to work on ways to glamorize bike commuting.