Imitate to Innovate: Vitoria-Gasteiz Shows How Cities can Address 21st Century Challenges

Tom Payne
This Big City

July 27, 2015


The Spanish city of Vitoria-Gasteiz has recently transformed itself from a congested and car-dominated city into one of the most pedestrian and bicycle-friendly places in Europe. It didn’t achieve this by going at it alone. Its key to success was learning from others.

Cities today are faced with challenges like never before. Rapid population growth, increasing inequality, pollution and congestion are not isolated issues. Rather, they are problems faced by cities across the globe.

While some places are quickly learning to change their old ways and adapt to new circumstances, others are finding it a little more difficult. Perhaps it’s time that those struggling cities to stop simply looking inward, and instead learned from others. After all, if people and businesses copy one-another to succeed, why can’t cities?

We now know that our addiction to the car was one of the greatest urban mistakes of last century. Weaning ourselves off this addiction is now one of our greatest challenges. While some cities reconfigure to prioritise people over cars, others are still stuck in the 70s. Sadly, it’s not only the environment that pays the price. Each year thousands of innocent people are killed because urban authorities can’t seem to re-adapt cities for people, rather than for cars.

Over the past few weeks in London we’ve seen outrage over the death of yet another cyclist. In all six of the deaths this year, the incidents involved a collision with a lorry. The problem is obvious: trucks and cars should not use the same lane of traffic as bicycles. The solution to this problem is also simple: separate the modes of transport.

Although people across London are fuming, there seems to be constant resistance to making logical junction and thoroughfare improvements. Surely the hundreds of innocent commuters dying in urban areas each year is enough for a city to make some drastic changes? Well, apparently not.

Although the city’s Mayor is an avid bike rider, plans to develop new bicycle infrastructure remain futile, and anything that has been achieved is ad-hoc and messy. While many progressive cities are quickly figuring it out, London (and many others), remain a dangerous place for people on bikes and on foot.

A couple of years ago, I did some research into why London was finding it so difficult to implement Danish-style infrastructure. After speaking with experts in London, I took off to Copenhagen to experience riding in the city and speak with urban designers and government officials. It was obvious to see how a combination of traffic calming measures and separated bike paths create a city that is vibrant, safe and beautiful.

The research findings were simple: despite copying overseas lingo like ‘Cycle Superhighways’, London doesn’t really try to copy anyone. It tries to do things its own way. New designs try to please everybody, but in doing so, the results don’t please anybody. What we’re left with is a surface-transport mess. It simply doesn’t work for pedestrians, drivers or those on bikes.

This year, I wanted to find a city that is doing things properly. I wanted to find a place that knows how it wants to improve and is quickly making the right changes to get there. The city I found was Vitoria-Gasteiz – the 2012 European Green City winner.

In just ten years Vitoria has completely transformed itself from a car-dominated, polluted city to one of the most pedestrian and bicycle-friendly in Europe (and probably the world). Today over 50% of people walk to get around and 12% of people ride bikes. The number of people driving cars quickly continues to fall. Compare this with 21% people walking and 3% riding bikes in London, and 10% and 1% respectively in New York City.

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