Parallels
5:00 am
Sun October 6, 2013

Car-Centric Spain Begins To Embrace The Bicycle

Originally published on Tue October 8, 2013 8:47 am

For the first time on record, bicycles have outsold cars in Spain.

Higher taxes on fuel and on new cars have prompted cash-strapped Spaniards to opt for two wheels instead of four. Last year, 780,000 bicycles were sold in the country — compared to 700,000 cars. That's due to a 4 percent jump in bike sales, and a 30 percent drop in sales of new cars.

But unlike countries in northern Europe like the Netherlands or Belgium, Spain doesn't have a long-standing bicycle tradition. Spaniards cheer on their countrymen in the Tour de France or Vuelta a España bike races on TV each summer. But that hasn't trickled down to real people commuting to work on bikes. In fact, Spain has one of the highest fatality rates for road cyclists in Europe.

A group of self-proclaimed "cycling activists" in Madrid is trying to change that — forcing cars to share the road and teaching reluctant Spaniards how to bike to work.

"It was not a bike-friendly city. So for that, cycling in Madrid makes you an activist," said Pablo Leon, 33, who writes a blog called "I Love Bicis." "But I think one day in the future, people who use bikes are not going to be activists anymore. They're going to be just citizens, who ride bikes."

Leon participates in Bici Crítica, the Spanish version of Critical Mass, a take-over-the-streets bike movement born in San Francisco in the 1990s. In Madrid, the movement got a late start. It began here in 2004 with just four riders, and by 2009, had barely 20 participants. But then the economic crisis hit.

Now thousands of cyclists occupy the Spanish capital on the last Thursday of every month, halting traffic at rush hour. They gather at a 19th-century palace in central Madrid, and ride a different route around the city each month.

"People are fed up to wait for the City Council to make bike lanes. Because when they had the money, they didn't do it," says Iván Villarrubia, a 36-year-old urban planner and self-styled bike activist. "And now that they want to do it, they don't have the money."

Villarrubia believes newcomers to biking should learn to share the road with cars, rather than wait for City Hall to build bike lanes. So far there are only a handful in the capital. "Long-term, to know how to share, to yield, to slow down — that's the correct solution."

Villarrubia also volunteers to teach his fellow Madrileños how to commute by bike. He meets people at their homes, and guides them to their workplaces by bike. He also has printed maps of the city's quiet, bike-friendly back streets.

"After that, they say, 'Oh my God, it was very easy. Why was I so stupid not to do this for the past 10 years of my life?' " Villarrubia says.

Despite the weather, cycling has long been more popular in northern Europe — Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia — than in Spain. In Amsterdam, about 60 percent of travel is done by bike.

But Spain has long had a love affair with cars. The country spent much of the 20th century in poverty. Cars became symbols of progress and wealth, Villarrubia says.

"In Spain, the Industrial Revolution came very late. So in the 1960s, to have a car was to say, 'I have passed the postwar poverty,' " he says. "So there are a lot of people who don't want to throw away this symbol. It means too much for them."

There's no hard data on bicycles in Madrid. Other Spanish cities like Barcelona and Sevilla have bike-sharing schemes like the one New York debuted last summer, through which the municipality can track bike use. But the Spanish capital's last bike tally was taken nine years ago, during the economic boom. Since the crash, activists estimate the number of cyclists here is doubling every 2.5 years — as the cost of public transport and fuel go up.

"We are learning every day, about the crisis. Maybe it's not changing the things that we thought at the beginning would change — the politicians, the banks, that kind of things. But it's changing our minds," says Juan Salenas, another cyclist at the Bici Crítica rally. "We spend less. We try to live with [what we have, and be] more happy. And we try to keep what we have, because maybe we will lose it tomorrow."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bicycles are outselling cars in Spain. Not because it's a biking culture, per se, but because it's a bad economy. Higher taxes on fuel and cars have prompted cash-strapped Spaniards to opt for two wheels instead of four. Lauren Frayer took a bike ride through downtown Madrid at rush hour and she sent us this postcard.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Just after dusk, on the last Thursday of every month, thousands of cyclists pedal their way to a designated meeting spot - a 19th century palace in central Madrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

FRAYER: This is Bici Critica, the Spanish version of Critical Mass, a take-over-the-streets bike movement born in San Francisco in the 1990s.

YAGO TERROBA: I move with the bike, because I don't want to pay the high taxes. Because in this city it's very expensive if you compare the prices of the public transport, with the salaries of the people.

FRAYER: Propelled by riders like Yago Terroba, bicycles have exploded onto the streets of Madrid. I climbed on my bike with my microphone and joined them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CHATTER)

FRAYER: Bici Critica had 20 participants here five years ago. Now, thousands take over downtown Madrid once a month, halting traffic at rush hour. They want cars to learn to share the road. Designated bike lanes are virtually non-existent here, says cyclist Ivan Villarrubia.

IVAN VILLARRUBIA: People are fed up to wait for the City Council to make bike lanes. Because when they had the money, they didn't do it. And now that they want to do it, they don't have the money. I'm an urban planner. I think the best word to define me is, now I'm a cycling activist.

FRAYER: His friend Pablo Leon explains what that means.

PABLO LEON: It was not a bike-friendly city. So, for that, cycling in Madrid makes you an activist. But I think one day in the future, people who use bikes is not going to be activists anymore. They're going to be just citizens who use bike.

FRAYER: Leon writes a blog called I Love Bicis - bicycles, in Spanish.

LEON: Ten years ago it was nothing. Just people, you can recognize people on the lights. And now , like, a lot of people using the bike and they need education. And now I think it's happening a little bit.

FRAYER: Villarrubia volunteers to literally teach Spaniards how to commute by bike.

VILLARRUBIA: Saturday morning, 10 o'clock, in your house. Make your bicycle ready. And, yeah.

FRAYER: Wait. And you go to people's houses and help them...

VILLARRUBIA: Yeah, to go from their houses to their jobs, to demonstrate that it's easy. And after that, they say, oh my god, it was very easy. Why I was so stupid not to do this the last 10 years of my life?

FRAYER: Spain spent much of the 20th century in poverty. Cars became symbols of progress and wealth, says another rider, Juan Salenas.

JUAN SALENAS: We love cars. I don't know why. We like making new roads and new structures that are very expensive. But maybe it's not what we need. No. We need something sustainable.

FRAYER: Salenas started cycling after visiting Amsterdam where 60 percent travel is done on bikes. There's no hard data on bicycles in Madrid though. Other Spanish cities like Barcelona and Seville have city bike rentals, like the scheme New York debuted last summer, through which the municipality can track bike use. But the Spanish capital's last bike tally was nine years ago, during the economic boom. Since the crash, activists estimate the number of cyclists here is doubling every two and a half years, as the cost of public transport and fuel go up. Again, Juan Salenas.

SALENAS: We are learning every day, about the crisis. Maybe it's not changing the things that we thought at the beginning would change - politicians, the banks, that kind of things. But they are changing our mind, and the way we focus the future. We spend less. We try to live with our things more happy. We try to keep what we have, because maybe we will lose it tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer riding my bike in downtown Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.