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PAMPLONA, Spain — Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Spanish city of Pamplona is not your typical bike-friendly place.
Like many other medieval cities, a large part of Pamplona sits atop a hill that rises steeply above the Navarrese plain. That topography once helped protect it from invading armies; today it makes biking an ambitious proposition.
“There is a height difference of approximately 20 meters between the riverbank and the highest parts of the city,” said Maribel Gómez, head of mobility for Pamplona’s municipal government. “You have to be in great shape to be able to pedal up slopes with gradients of over 8 percent.”
Up until a few years ago, the city’s cycling community was mainly made up of “fit guys who were into sports.” That changed when authorities started to invest in infrastructure, including a series of public elevators linking key points in Pamplona’s historic center — famous the world-over for hosting the annual Running of the Bulls festival — to the plateau below.
Bike use has boomed since, prompting the city to build out its network of cycling lanes — a virtuous circle that could disprove the conventional wisdom that it’s too difficult to cycle in Europe’s hot, hilly southern cities.
Compared to northern Europe’s cycling utopias, bike uptake in southern cities is low. While more than 30 percent of people in Amsterdam and Copenhagen say they rely on bikes as their main mode of transport, less than 4 percent of Rome’s residents use bikes to get around. In the Maltese capital of Valletta, 5.8 percent cycle on a daily basis; in Lisbon, 6.4 percent.
“It’s always the same thing: People in southern cities say, ‘Hey, this isn’t Amsterdam: My city isn’t flat so don’t complain that I don’t cycle’,” said Samuel Nello-Deakin, researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
“It’s true that the cities that register the highest rates of bike use are flat or have maximum gradients of 5 percent,” he said. “But that’s not a hard and fast rule: We see high cycling rates in Zurich and other Swiss cities with very steep hills.”
Elevating urban cycling
On a recent morning, parents on the school run and professionals on their way to the office queued up at the entrance to the Calle Descalzos elevator, located just above the bank of the Arga River and built into the base of Pamplona’s ancient fortifications.
The large cabin fits about a dozen pedestrians or five bicycles — though pedestrians take priority, meaning cyclists can end up waiting a little longer for their ride up the hill.
Gómez admitted that the elevators weren’t designed for cyclists when they were first installed in 2008. “We were looking to give older residents a way to get to the shops and health centers in the old quarter.”
But city leaders quickly realized the elevators were incentivizing bike use, by easing the pain of a steep uphill commute by turning a brutal ascent into a 20-second ride. Once a rare sight, it’s now common to see suited professionals zip through the city’s streets.
Over the past 11 years Pamplona’s original fleet of five elevators has been expanded to 11, with estimated ridership rates of almost 2.7 million people per year — an impressive figure for a city of 200,000.
“Our data shows that this infrastructure is allowing for the movement of tremendous numbers of people within the city,” said Gómez. “Ultimately, it’s proven to be key to allowing the old quarter to remain alive.”
The uptick in cycling is not only down to elevators, said Gómez. The city has doubled its bike lanes — from 4.8 kilometers in 2019 to 10.5 km in 2021 — and launched a new e-bike sharing scheme in December 2021.
The system — set up with Spanish company Ride On and sponsored by local bank Caja Rural de Navarra — has anchor points in all neighborhoods, rather than only in the city’s most touristy areas, and keeps costs for users low.
The docking price for the system’s subscribers are just €0.70, and the first 20 minutes of any ride is free. That makes the service cheaper than the single ticket on the city’s municipal bus lines.
Those affordable fares are key, as owning an e-bike — which can cost between €1,000 and €2,500 — is a luxury in countries like Spain and Portugal, where the median monthly salary is €1,750 and €1,360, respectively.
Gómez said the city has not yet established definitive ridership rates, but that counters placed at strategic points throughout the city were detecting some 8,500 cyclists (e-bikes and others) per day.
Promoting e-bike use could be key in other hilly cities too, according to Holger Haubold, director of intellectual property and data collection at the European Cyclists’ Foundation (ECF).
“E-bikes are game-changers for less sporty people, senior citizens, and even just commuters who want to get to work without arriving covered in sweat,” he said.
“Countries like France and Sweden have introduced national purchase incentives that have worked quite well, but overall lending and subsidy schemes have been lacking,” he said.
Last year cycling organizations persuaded the Council of the European Union to authorize member countries to apply reduced VAT rates on the supply, rental and repair of conventional bicycles and e-bikes. But Holger said that nearly a year later not all countries have taken that step, and that the EU needs to do more to make e-bikes accessible for all.
Making that a reality — and providing additional solutions such as better links between cycling infrastructure and public transport — is particularly urgent in southern European cities, which are suffering from extreme heat as a result of climate change, said Gómez.
“We have to stop emitting CO2 and we have to reverse the trend of having public spaces full of cars,” she said. “We have to do everything we can to get people to be able to move by bike, on foot or with non-polluting public transport.”
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