The spiral of traffic jams at the entrances to Barcelona during peak hours is back to stay. After the pandemic hiatus and months of fluid traffic, it now seems that arriving on time to work or school have ceased to be formalities to become merits. The new normal forces to recalculate travel times because, in addition to the already stressed road system, we must add an increase in the number of cars circulating. There are already 2.48% more vehicles moving on the streets of the Catalan capital than were counted in 2019, according to official data. Some figures that you draw that the retentions already exceed the category of circumstantial disorder.
September saw a 21% year-on-year drop in unemployment in the Barcelona district and found that, despite the bombastic omens, teleworking did not come to stay, or at least not as widespread as claimed. More volume of people working and traveling, misgivings about the use of public transport and the free tolls have engendered a favorable combination to hinder circulation.
They know this well in the Catalan Traffic Service (SCT), where every morning they see how the road map always blushes at the same points. They are the most problematic sections, those where the strings of red brake lights dominate from dawn. In this sketch, the AP-7 motorway at the height of Sant Cugat del Vallès or the A-2 as it passes through the Baix Llobregat, from Sant Vicenç dels Horts and Sant Andreu de la Barca to the capital, stand out.
Nearby, the C-32 is a test of nerves for drivers who circulate through the Gavà, Viladecans, Sant Boi section. The same happens on the C-31, which is usually a martyrdom in Badalona, but which, in the most critical days, begins to paralyze in Montgat. Another classic is the C-58, between Terrassa and Sabadell and in the Badia and Ripollet area.
Peeking the streets of Barcelona does not allow automatic relief. The rounds draw a compact tail of vehicles. In the worst days, up to 12 kilometers of retention. “That means that they are collapsed from end to end,” says an SCT spokesman. The same does not matter whether you choose the route through the Dalt or the Litoral. The nuance is in the direction of circulation: “The most common is that in the morning the problems are in the Llobregat direction and, in the afternoon, in the Besòs direction”, he adds.
The traffic jam starts around seven in the morning and lasts until after nine. “There are days that are especially conflictive,” explains the spokesperson for the entity. The closest example was last Monday, when the Rodalies train strike coincided with a morning rain. A kind of perfect storm was unleashed to bog down circulation. But circulatory problems are not a specific event and therein lies the concern. “We are reaching levels of mobility such as those recorded before the pandemic,” confirms Òscar Llatje, coordinator of mobility and road safety at the SCT.
During the month of September, after the summer break and the return to school, the average weekly intensity at the entrances to Barcelona exceeded 924,500 vehicles per day. The data is 2.48% higher than that registered in the same period of 2019. With such a bustle, a minor incident, be it a breakdown, a sudden stop or an accident, has the capacity to affect circulatory fluidity.
But why do the queues always repeat themselves at the same points? Llatje accepts that there are especially vulnerable sections. “Any change in the uniformity of the road layout is a conflict zone,” adds the technician. It refers to the impact that “a crossing, a roundabout, a sloping section or anything that implies a change in the road and forces a decrease in flow” has on traffic. The entrances to Barcelona are in themselves a funnel: “You come from wide roads, where you can circulate at 120 kilometers per hour and you enter a plot limited to 50 kilometers per hour and with traffic lights,” he explains.
In the Catalan Traffic Service they affirm that they have not studied whether recent works carried out in the capital have had a thickening effect on the circulation through the accesses. However, Llatje is categorical about the consequences of the release of tolls. The engineer, who has worked at STC for 23 years, sees a knock-on effect. Contrary to what has happened with the private vehicle, Renfe refers that, after the pandemic, the recovery of the confidence of users in public transport is being slow. In 2019, Rodalies registered 450,000 daily travelers and now it does not exceed 315,000.
Fear of contagion
“The pandemic has led to a false sense of insecurity in public transport,” reasons Daniel Pi, coordinator of the technical office of the association for the Promotion of Public Transport (PTP). “In addition, for months road congestion decreased and the perception grew that travel times by car were improving,” he adds.
According to him lobby In favor of public transport, it is not possible to border “some signals issued by the administration, especially by the Generalitat, which has positioned itself in favor of the elimination of tolls, which is an invitation to the use of private transport.” Pi criticizes the deceptive effect of some policies that, supposedly, are a commitment to sustainability.
“The aid to the electric car means a renunciation of investing in public transport, without taking into account that an electric car does not help to improve withholdings and generates a much higher demand for energy than public transport,” Pi warns. Llatje argues that, over time, road congestion ends up having a dissuasive effect on the use of private vehicles. “There comes a time when the driver is convinced that he does not have to put up with it anymore and goes to public transport,” he explains.
A study by the PTP shows that the most efficient means of mobility is the train. “A lane of a highway in an urban environment absorbs 1,180 passengers per hour, while a train line running at full capacity moves 22,000 passengers,” Pi illustrates. And it abounds: “to be able to equate it with the train, a highway would have to have 19 lanes”. Llatje reasons that mobility always tends to overwhelm the infrastructure: “building more lanes is a mistake, because you end up attracting more vehicles.”