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?