Barcelona, 100 Years Ago: A Model for Streets Today?

This film, as featured on YouTube via Infrastructurist, shows the streets of Barcelona a century ago, taken from the front window of a tram going down the street. It’s an amazing film. The central avenues of this Catalan city are so vital, so alive, a mix of every activity. Then the film compares the old streets to the same streets today. Quite a comparison.

The streets a century ago illustrate the principal of
“tout a la rue,” meaning everything into the street. Cyclists, cars,
pedestrians, streetcars, kids. And of course horses. Seems to work.

Interesting how bold the cyclists are in 1907. I wonder why they don’t seem
to fear being tipped over by the streetcar tracks? They ride right
across them, often at only a slight angle, and don’t get channeled into
them. Were tracks built somehow with less of a gap between track and
street? Were the tires of the bicycles fatter?

The views of the same streets today are distressing. I love Barcelona. It’s one of my favorite cities. But the streets of today seem lifeless and sterile. Could they really be that barren today? Maybe the films from today were shot in the early morning, when few people were around. The streets certainly seemed very alive when I was there in 1994. Still, it’s no doubt true that even the most active streets today are less so than those of a century ago. It’s mostly the fault of the car, which we have given our streets over to so completely.

The 1907 scenes from Barcelona capture an era where so many transportation modes were either beginning, ending or right in
their heyday, and mixing all together. Modern cycling as we know it developed in the 1880s and was really at its height in 1907. Streetcars, electric
ones, were relatively new then but completely dominant. Cars were just
beginning. There were still many, many horse-drawn wagons, and would be for another half century. Walking was there as well of course.

Could we get back to some modern version of that, an amazing lively mix of different ways of getting around, all in busy public streets? I’d like to think so.

One thing that comes to mind watching this old film are these incredibly expensive contemporary light rail systems, now built from San Diego to Charlotte to New Jersey. I tend to support their construction, but I can’t help noticing how little subtlety they display in relation to their surroundings. They are typically
grade separated and their presence is like a big stream of concrete squeezed out into the middle of a street. Even modern
streetcar systems usually do not blend so seamlessly as this Barcelona
one did. Why is this? Can we change it?

  • John

    “Even modern streetcar systems usually do not blend so seamlessly as this Barcelona one did. Why is this? Can we change it?”

    I doubt many people actually want to ride a streetcar that moves as slowly as those 100 years ago. Light rail is grade separated to improve the travel speeds. People go farther now than they did then.

  • Could they really be that barren today? Maybe the films from today were shot in the early morning, when few people were around. The streets certainly seemed very alive when I was there in 1994.

    My wife and I have both visited Barcelona, and we agree with you about this. It doesn’t seem a fair comparison. Also, it looks like the 1908 film was shot on a Sunday or some other occasion for people to be out dressed up.

    Finally, notice how in Barcelona today they put their dumpsters and recycling cans (and lots of other utilitarian street furniture) in the “parking” lane?

  • Not a single women riding a bike. I thought that was interesting.

  • JDogg

    I doubt it is a fair comparison to look at the two films.

    The film of 1908 seems to have been an event of sorts to the residents – the cyclists all seem to want to be in the camera frame, the street is lined with people on the area of the streetcar, yet oddly empty on the other side.

    The 2008 film has all the bikes locked, the stores closed and a very low sun angle. In 2008, a camera on a bus or bike is not out of the ordinary.

    100 years ago a motion picture involved a tremendous production and set up that we forget about with our digital cameras built into our disposable phones.

    I can take you through the streets of New York City at 6am on a Sunday and have empty streets where 4 hours before the nightlife was maddening and 4 hours later, the streets again will be filled with pedestrians and activity.

  • JDogg

    As a response to the grade separated rail and mixed mode transportation – PETA would not stand for the use of horses as part of commerce in large urban areas, residents today would not stand for the leavings in the streets.

    You noted that the cyclists did not fear the rail, and yes – tires were wider, and in low speed rail the gaps are there, however the flange on the rail wheel is not as deep so the gap is shallow.

    Our lifestyle has become dominated by schedule and interconnection – we rely on the subway coming every 8 minutes so that we can make the next connection. If we had to rely on the punctual crosstown buses, we might never get to where we want to go.

  • Peter Flint

    Not to negate the appeal of the 1908 total streets approach, but my historian wife tells me that all was not perfectly harmonious with the streetcars of that time.

    Apparently in NYC, pedestrians were killed by streetcars on a very regular basis, as they had a tendency to misjudge their timing and dart in front of them at the wrong moment. it was fairly widely noted in primary sources from the times. This probably happened to bicyclists too.

    As far as the tracks and bikes go, the tires on bikes were probably all fairly wide back then, which would have helped a bit when crossing the tracks.

  • mfs

    Peter is right- the streets were very very dangerous because they were so crowded and because people loved trying to beat the streetcars at the last minute.

  • Veritas

    The streets are still dangerous now, except that cars instead of streetcars are killing pedestrians.

  • Veritas

    That should read: The streets are still dangerous now, but cars instead of streetcars are killing pedestrians.

  • The famed Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi died after being hit by a tram, though it seems that he could have survived if he had been treated promptly.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoni_Gaudí

    I agree that it seems the new video was shot early morning when no one was around. When I visited Barcelona 15 years ago we spent most of our time rambling Las Ramblas, one of the most dynamic pedestrian avenues in the world. At the time there were two single lane row for cars and the main center of the avenue was pedestrian only with all sorts of stalls set up selling everything from food to flowers to pet birds.

    I wonder if there is any similar film from street cars roaming the NYC streets?

  • I didn’t know that about Gaudi, Blaise. Thanks.

    Google Video Search is your friend:

    http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=ny+trolley

  • Tom

    If Antonio was only wearing a helmet…

  • J-Uptown

    First, let me say that I agree that the 2008 video appears to be shot in the early morning hours when people are not typically outside. However, I would also like to point out that there were far fewer indoor entertainment opportunities in 1908 as there are today. No TV, no internet, or widespread radio broadcasts. Even electric lighting was still in its infancy. In other words, there was a lot more reason to be out on the streets in 1908.

  • The 2008 video was definitely taken in early morning. Notice how slowly the streetcar seemed to be moving in 1908, compared to what we’d expect from a light rail line today? It was probably necessary to shoot at that time of day in order to move through the streets slowly enough to replicate the feel of the 1908 video. And that’s definitely why the streets feel empty. From the annotation at 0:45 of the video we can tell specifically where in the city we are, at the intersection of Passeig de Gracia and Avinguida Diagonal. Take a look at it on Google Street View (you can tell it’s the same place because of the obelisk in the middle) and you’ll certainly see a bustling city, albeit one that’s, in this major intersection, dominated by cars.

  • “PETA would not stand for the use of horses as part of commerce in large urban areas.”

    Since this is a NY blog, most people can head to 59th St. just west of 5th Ave. to disprove this statement.

  • Shemp

    Spain in recent years has been a bit like Eastern Europe with a 10 year head start – emerging from the political dark ages and then experiencing tremendous economic growth upon admission to the EU. Car ownerhip took on a momentum that people associated with social progress and status, and the driving culture is very aggressive. Not suprising that Spain leads the EU in traffic deaths/capita and that Barcelona outside the oldest parts of town is not a great place to walk around and would be scary to ride a bike in. I’ve heard Madrid is worse.

  • Shemp, Madrid is amazingly walkable. It has a few substantial car-free districts and the half-dozen inner neighborhoods around it are a pleasure to walk in. I’ve never seen a city with so many kinds of bollards! Only the outer (newer) neighborhoods are car-dominated.

  • As Chair of the New York City Council Transportation Committee, Comptroller Candidate John Liu should hold hearings on the devastating effect Manhattan Megaprojects are having on the MTA operating budget. Liu would learn that
    alterations in MTA’s capital program offer a constructive method of avoiding drastic fare increases and service cuts or the Ravitch Commission’s proposed lesser fare rises, toll bridge fees and business taxes. Manhattan Borough Pres. Scott Stringer, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, State Senator Liz Krueger, and MTA ally Straphangers Campaign spokesman Gene Russianoff have many believing Manhattan Megaprojects, Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access are fully funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This is not the case. Of the estimated $4.65 billion, 1.7 mile Second Avenue Subway, the FTA has pledged only $1.3 billion, the 2005 State Bond Act $450 million and the remaining $2.8 billion must be funded by the MTA through taxes, fares and bonds involving finance costs all included in the MTA operating budget. Substituting Light Rail at 1/10 the cost for the Subway on Second Avenue would not only relieve the MTA of roughly $2.8 billion in operating budget costs, but would leave at least $1 billion in federal money for much-needed light rail in the Douglaston-Little Neck area of Queens, Mill Basin in Brooklyn and the North and West Shores of Staten Island.

  • Raimon Llorenç

    Hi!

    I am from Barcelona….Indeed, I even lived in one of those streets for a year….For sure, this comparison is not fair….This is probably on a Sunday morning…I´ve never seen those streets like that…Not because they are empty of people, but also empty of cars…I know we can imagine a city empty of pedestrians (as many cities sadly are), but could you imagine a city empty of cars???? No way!

    It would have been much interesting a comparison during a regular day in a regular hour…Streets are plenty of people, more and more bikes….and the main difference between 100 years ago and now is that streets are also plenty of cars, with no pedestrians walking along the carriageway. That may be a more fair comparison, from my point of view.

  • J. Mork

    “could you imagine a city empty of cars?”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_carfree_places

    (Includes the Barri Gòtic!)

  • Raimon Llorenç

    J. Mork!

    Of course, I meant “Could you imagine a street for cars empty of cars???” No way, because they always clog the space you provide them (except nights, early sunday mornings, during Christmas lunch, etc.)

    However, very nice website!
    Thanks!

  • J. Mork

    Raimon — very good.

    (It seems that Catalan for “bravo” is “bravo.)

  • J. Mork

    Raimon — so true. Thanks for the clarification.

    (It seems that Catalan for “bravo” is “bravo.)

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