Supermanzanas, Zona de Bajas Emisiones... Por qué judicializar las medidas de planificación urbana podría tener un coste para nuestra salud

Superblocks, Low Emissions Zone... Why Court Cases Against New Urban Planning and Transport Measures Could Have a Cost on Our Health

13.5.2022
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Photo: Mariona Gil / Barcelona City Council. - Superblock in the Sant Antoni neighborhood, Barcelona.

The recent efforts of the Barcelona City Council to improve the city’s environment through new urban and transport initiatives like Superblocks, Low Emissions Zone (LEZ), and the revamp of Via Laietana have met with considerable resistance, including a number of court cases that try to stop or delay the measures, mainly based on financial or economic arguments.

However, to a large extent these court cases are based on outdated urban and transport planning perspectives from the 20th century. These models have overestimated the economic benefits and underestimated the costs including a range of externalities. Any delay in implementing the measures leads to unnecessary disease, deaths and related health costs, and should be avoided.

The recent efforts of the Barcelona City Council to improve the city’s environment through new urban and transport initiatives have met with considerable resistance, including a number of court cases that try to stop or delay the measures, mainly based on financial or economic arguments

Good, reliable and efficient urban planning and transport systems are essential for cities to thrive. Research shows that current urban and transport planning practices can cause increased exposure to air pollution and noise, heat islands, and a lack of green spaces and physical activity. This in turn have significant detrimental effects on health such as increasing morbidity and premature mortality. In Barcelona, each year nearly 3,000 premature deaths (20% of total deaths) and around 5,000 disease cases are related to urban and transport planning related exposures, including air and noise pollution, high temperatures, and lack of green spaces for physical activity. These losses come at an estimated cost of 9.3 billion euros per year. Furthermore, more than 1,000 children develop childhood asthma each year, because of air pollution and children in schools with high air pollution levels have a slower cognitive development.

Superblock in Poblenou neighborhood. Clara Soler Chopo/Barcelona City Council.

Current transport practices generatee costs and benefits to society depending on the mode of transport. A recent study suggested that each kilometer driven by a car has an external cost of 0.11 euros, while cycling and walking represent benefits of 0.18 euros and 0.37 euros per kilometer. Extrapolated to the total number of passenger kilometers driven, cycled or walked in the European Union, the cost of automobility is about 500 billion euros per year. Due to its positive health effects, cycling is an external benefit worth 24 billion euros per year and walking 66 billion euros per year.

In Barcelona, each year nearly 3,000 premature deaths (20% of total deaths) and around 5,000 disease cases are related to urban and transport planning related exposures, including air and noise pollution, high temperatures, and lack of green spaces for physical activity.

Only One Out of Four Trips is by Car

So given the positive health and economic impacts of green planning, why is there resistance to the proposed changes in Barcelona? These reactions suggest that commercial and economic interests override people’s health on the agenda of many stakeholders. But then, why are the economic costs linked to poor health being ignored? In Barcelona, most people do not even use the car for their commute, as only one out of four trips within the city is by car, although a disproportional 60% of public space, i.e. roads and parking, is dedicated to cars.

In Barcelona, most people do not even use the car for their commute, as only one out of four trips within the city is by car, although a disproportional 60% of public space, i.e. roads and parking, is dedicated to cars

Is it because people feel that they have a right to drive when there is a road? These roads are used to get from point A to B, but perhaps they forget that these roads are also people’s public space, and should be enjoyed by all, not some. Furthermore, we have what appears to be motorways running through the city (e.g. Calle Aragó, Muntaner orAribau) that should not be there in a livable city.

Via Laietana closed to traffic during the Mercè Respira day. Carlota Serarols / Barcelona City Council. 

The reason for driving a car is often that it is quick and comfortable (albeit expensive). A trip from A to B would be 20 minutes, while with public transport it would be 40 minutes. In reality, in a city like Barcelona, often it takes 30 minutes by car (and generates stress) because of traffic congestion. The solution is not to give more space to cars, but to invest heavily in public transport to make it faster and more comfortable. Cars are needed outside the city for a variety of reasons, but not inside the city.

The solution is not to give more space to cars, but to invest heavily in public transport to make it faster and more comfortable

Health Benefits of Traffic Restriction Measures

A recent health impact assessment of the possible implementation of 500 Superblocks in Barcelona showed that nearly 700 premature deaths could be avoided annually if implemented. The implementation of the initial three Superblocks (Poblenou, Sant Antoni and Horta) showed mixed results but a reduction in air pollution and improvement in lifestyle and health. A more recent air pollution modelling study estimated the effects of the traffic restriction measures on the air quality in Barcelona.They quantified the impact on air quality of the Superblocks, the Eixos Verds (green hubs), the tactical urban planning actions, along with the implementation of a city-wide Low Emissions Zone that restricts the entry of the most polluting vehicles in the greater area of Barcelona. They found that the proposed Eixos Verds in isolation do not have overall benefits on air quality in the city, they need to be introduced together with other complementary measures. These studies show that the city council needs to be much more ambitious with the Eixos Verds plan and introduce many other measures.

Roc Boronat street (Poblenou neighborhood). Curro Palacios / Barcelona City Council.

A loss of retail business is often mentioned as an argument against the measures. But a much greater threat than the measures proposed by the city council is e-commerce (online buying) which has been growing dramatically, and this may lead to local shops closing and dead shopping streets in the long term, and increased traffic and pollution in the short term, because of all the (home) deliveries. It is therefore important to make local shopping more attractive. Pedestrianizing streets and reducing car traffic are good ways to increase retail sales. It could support the local economy and discourage e-commerce.

International Recognition of the Superblock Model

The Superblock model has received international recognition, and is being considered in many other cities. A study developed a data-driven geospatial methodology for automatic detection of Superblock potentials in 18 cities with various shapes and sizes and found that cities could implement the Superblock model in many areas.

The Superblock model has received international recognition, and is being considered in many other cities

The implementation of the Superblock model should not be seen in isolation in Europe as many European cities implement new urban models (e.g. 15-minute city, car free city), that shift behaviours from private car use to public and active transportation with an increase in green spaces. This is a trend that has been going on for a considerable number of years and was accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The trend is to move away from outdated 20th century car centric city models to 21st century people centric city models that not only take into account mobility but also sustainability, liveability and health. When implemented, these new measures make the city a place to combat the climate crisis and promote health.

Furthermore, the Superblock model should not be the only urban intervention that the city council should implement; it should be combined with other measures such as the low emission zones, expanding the cycling network, extension of the tram system, transformation and pacification of areas around schools, creation of new parks (e.g. Glories) and green networks to obtain the maximum benefits for the environment, the climate, our health and the economy. Finally, improving urban planning and the public transport system in the metropolitan area is essential to reduce the traffic flow into and out of Barcelona city,maximize the potential of the metropolitan area and make it more attractive, sustainable, liveable and healthy.

The trend is to move away from outdated 20th century car centric city models to 21st century people centric city models that not only take into account mobility but also sustainability, liveability and health

Further thought

Though this is an urgent challenge and needs fast action, some of these changes will take longer to implement. New and easy to implement policies such as introducing 30 km/hour speed limits on all roads in urban areas could have a significant impact on the number of accidents and make the city safe, healthy and more liveable.