by Marco Biagi MSP for Edinburgh City Centre

I called him ‘Shadowfax’. With Barcelona’s ‘Bicing’ on-street municipal hire scheme closed to me as a non-local, he was the bike I hired from the extremely friendly Green Bikes in Plaça de George Orwell.

Amidst enjoying the culture, architecture and febrile political atmosphere of a recess break I had decided to put to the test what I’ve said – that if the city I was in had a network of off-road cycle paths I would be happy to get off my two feet and onto two wheels. But I also wanted a practical lesson in street design to take back to Edinburgh, and to experience the challenges faced by so many of the people who write to me, in a place whose infrastructure may (or may not) have been developed enough to cushion my unfamiliarity with the mode of transport.

My first leg was an 8km cycle northward from the city’s centre to a park in the lower part of the hills that surround Barcelona. Well, it should have been an 8km cycle. The moment the segregated path along the great boulevard of Ave Meridiana ended I was lost, and cycled in so many circles through a residential area I felt like I was on a fairground roundabout. After rejoining a main thoroughfare at the eyebrow-raisingly named Plaça de Karl Marx, a concrete homage to visions of automobile futures past, I reached my destination.

On the next leg I tried to do completely the opposite of what I’d done the last time but still managed to get lost at the same point, just in a different way. Shrugging, I followed the example of Newton’s apple and let gravity guide me downwards until reaching the waterfront. After a break for feeding and watering I was one of many taking the long, leisurely cycle along the series of artificial beaches that had been built for the 1992 Olympics and have now become an enduring part of the city’s seascape.

My final leg was successfully racing the hire shop’s opening hours back to where I’d started, with one accidental if scenic detour through the cruise ship-laden harbour. There was only one Euro in it if I returned Shadowfax the next day, but hey, I’m Scottish. I also needed the satisfaction of getting back on time, and by then frankly I definitely also needed a shower.

As someone who is fairly fit but hadn’t been on a bike in eight years, the segregated cycle lanes along Barcelona’s great boulevards suited me perfectly. The least substantial of barriers between myself and the rather energetic local drivers was a set of oversized cats eyes. I would rather have dismounted and walked than share a space with a ton of metal moving at forty miles per hour without some form of barrier between us – and a line of paint or different-coloured road surface never counts.

Could Edinburgh do this? While we’re noted more for narrow streets than great boulevards, there are many large main roads that feed into the city centre like tributaries into the Amazon. And our narrow streets are nowhere near as narrow as the ten-foot wide passages in the Ciutat Vella. I see no obstacle of engineering that would prevent Edinburgh doing likewise. Crucial for me though too as a nervous newbie were the junctions, where cyclists moved with the pedestrians rather than the motorists and remained off-road at all times.

One stark difference was that in Barcelona when the cycle paths were absent bikes were expected to cohabit on the pavements rather than the roads. Pedestrians did not seem fazed by cyclists on pavements, though this cyclist was often fazed by pedestrians, especially the thirty-strong pack of roller-bladers who came at me like TIE fighters in Luke’s final run on the Death Star. Cycle paths are built with money and concrete – this sort of relationship is only built with time and respect.

So, if Edinburgh somehow copied Barcelona’s infrastructure and on-street ‘Bicing’ hire scheme, would I start travelling by bike? In absence of also copying Barcelona’s also more extensive public transport network, possibly. The city’s warm weather may help its café culture, but for me would hinder a personal cycling culture. On those five uphill miles that broke me in (and almost broke me full stop) I was longing for a bit of Edinburgh haar and smirr. And that was in October. Topographically, cycling in Edinburgh and Barcelona at that point also seemed more similar than I had ever imagined. But the appeal for me of Barcelona’s network is not just its greater comprehensiveness in providing routes from where I would be to where I would want to be to but also what feels like a greater emphasis on wholesale separation from motor traffic than Edinburgh has put in place so far.

rather inexact map-1
Marco’s inexact map

I left thinking that while the Netherlands and Denmark may the elder statesmen of cycling investment, under the Mediterranean sun Barcelona’s growing reputation is well-deserved. The Copenhagenize table regularly lists the Catalan capital as one of the new emerging cycling cities in Europe. But Barcelona’s network has come about because of determined action over less than decade by the city’s leaders – ‘Bicing’ only started in 2007. If Edinburgh wishes to follow there are lessons to learn. Just one thing though – a few more signposts, please.

For more information (and more photos than I had the foresight to take), see this excellent article from earlier this year by Robin Lovelace on the CTC blog.


  1. Marco! I cycle in Edinburgh every day and feel pretty safe, but I do have lots of experience, and I’m truly a defensive cyclist. I welcome the improvements that are being made here. The segregated lanes in George Street work well, and the possible improvements associated with North Meadow Walk would be terrific for me. However I have concerns about segregation of cyclists and ordinary road traffic.

    As I see it, cycling developments should have at their heart efforts to make cycling the best option possible for as many people as possible, for as many journeys as possible. That’s the best way to encourage more people to take up cycling in their everyday lives. If streets in Edinburgh are too narrow, as you point out, for segregated bike lanes we may have no option other than to share better.

    You’ll know that just now there is conflict between cyclists and walkers on the Union Canal tow-path. I’m staggered by the speed of fellow cyclists on this path, and identify the worst ‘culprits’ as commuters choosing this route for journeys to and from work, and other cyclists like them, using the route for ‘every-day’ journeys. Yet these journeys are the very ones which we should encourage! The reasons why cyclists choose the canal path over road are obvious. The poor road conditions, lighting and visibility, traffic speed and behaviour etc. on Fountainbridge, Dundee Street and Slateford Road are enough to make the tow-path much the more attractive one for cycling, and remember, the tow-path has no traffic lights to slow you. If we want more people to include cycling in their daily activities, and to reduce their dependence on motorised transport we should alter the balance, and make road use more attractive so they choose that option.

    A generalised 20mph. speed limit with some areas where 15mph is normal would go a long way to achieving that goal. As would improving road surfaces. The 1.5m of road nearest the kerb, the part used by cyclist the most, is usually the part in worst condition. Priorities usually favour car users, and junction design often allows them to pass through those junctions at speed. You just have to look at the junctions of Marchmont Road or Argyle Place onto Melville Drive to see what I mean. Terrifying. Tollcross junction is a text-book case of how to make a nasty junction for cyclists. Try going from Lauriston Place into Lothian Road without having to cut across cars wanting to turn into West Tollcross. Almost impossible. On-road bike lanes can help a lot, but all too often they are incomplete, or blocked by parked or delivery vehicles. Better priority for bikes is urgently required in Edinburgh if we want more people to cycle.

    If there is room for segregated bike lanes, then putting them in is great. Youngsters can be safe on the way to school. Tourists will like them, as will less confident cyclists, perhaps people like yourself, who are returning to bikes. For me they would be the best option too because I’m seldom in a hurry. But the essential thing is to make roads and separated routes better for cyclists who are commuting, shopping, doing business or commerce, going to the gym and so on, where cycling is a means of transport, not an end in itself. Separated cycle lanes are great, but they have to be sensible, desirable and efficient routes for getting from place to place. If a city like Edinburgh can’t always fit in fast and efficient separate paths, then roads must be improved so people will choose to cycle on them.

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