The “bidegorris” or cycle paths of San Sebastian and Gipuzkoa
Written by Miguel Sagués
Translated by Olwen Mears
These days, cycling around the city of San Sebastian is an extremely pleasant way to pass the time. Using your bike to travel to work is now a reality for an increasing number of people. What’s more for tourists, getting around and familiarizing oneself with the city by bike is not only enjoyable, but in many ways also an enriching exercise. Even then, there are still many things we have yet to achieve and much room for improving those we already have. All in good time.
After all, this is something that’s been 25 years in the making. In retrospect, this seems like no time at all: a mere blink of an eye in the city’s long history. One that hasn’t stopped, but keeps on and will keep on keeping on for many years to come. Perhaps then we will at last be able to look back and realise just what it meant to bring about the creations of cycle paths (“bidegorriak”: literally, red paths due to their colour) in our city. An achievement that would make travelling to school or work by bike a much easier, healthier and more pleasant experience.
But living through those 25 years, especially right at the start of this apparently short time period, was hard, problematic; a real uphill struggle, one could say, like crossing a mountain pass.
The 80s were a difficult decade for many towns in the Basque Country. Important questions were being debated, often through violent means. Asking for cycle paths simply in order to be able to go from one place to another sometimes seemed like a completely trivial request, arguably infantile and unquestionably delusional.
Nevertheless, it was to become the flagship campaign that would draw together Donostiarras (the inhabitants of San Sebastian) of various ages and of very different social and ideological backgrounds. Many were the meetings held between this childish and deranged hotchpotch, though with a single and clear objective: that whatever it took, cycling had to be made a safe activity; that the humble bicycle must be respected, valued and given the same consideration in all decisions concerning urban traffic.
And out of such simple yet vigorous proposals, a need was born for an association that would give strength and stability to the steps that would be taken along the way. And this is how, in 1989, KALAPIE, Association of Urban Cyclists, was formed. Things were clear from the start and it was with the same clarity of ideas that Kalapie laid out their objective: to achieve “sustainable mobility that is respectful of the environment”.
At first, such ideas were not well received by many sections of the community. They chose instead to believe, as so often occurred, that dark forces were at work, under a guise of innocence, with a hidden and dangerous agenda. The smiles worn by some marked what was mere contempt for those who dared to dream, while the serious looks worn by others began contemplating a potential enemy. Business was an important consideration for a large section of the city, and providing easy access to the circulation of cars in the city-centre was crucial to commerce. The main road that began in France, crossing the city and running through the centre of San Sebastian, was considered untouchable despite being an ancient relic that could not withstand the increasing volume of traffic for many more years.
However, even before that, back in 1980 the first cycle path was officially opened in the city. Christened “bidegorri” this was a new word even for us, though with time it was to become part of our everyday language. Its purpose was not to connect one place with another; it was simply a cycle path, 1.5 km long, which ran parallel to the Urumea river and along the Paseo de Bizkaia and Arbol de Gernika. Then in September of the following year (1981) the first parking area for bicycles was officially opened on the San Sebastian Boulevard. It wasn’t much. A humble parking area for a few bikes. But it was something too. Some were encouraged by it, others were terrified. Where was this leading? A few disjointed steps that some viewed with eagerness and others with fear. For the time being, the hopes and aspirations of San Sebastian’s cycling population would have to go on hold, though the demand for action continued.
In 1993 and 1994 the council of San Sebastian took on the task of sorting out the city’s traffic. This lead to the creation of the first route to be jointly accessible to both pedestrians and cyclists. Running from the Plaza de Bilbao as far as the Boulevard, it was free of all motorised traffic: “calles” Getaria, Txurruka and Elkano became shining examples of how peace was achievable. Advocates of the bicycle, with Kalapie at the forefront, gained public recognition and respect. In 1993, the Kalapie Association asked to be considered as members of the Traffic Advisory Commission, a request that was not granted until November 1996. This recognition marked a crucial development for Kalapie.
It wasn’t all plain-sailing. An argument over car-parks in the city-centre, for example, was to bring Kalapie to loggerheads with San Sebastian Council.
Genuine progress was sorely needed. Something that would bear testimony to the validity of all our efforts. It wouldn’t be easy, but we began to tackle the possibility of building a bidegorri along San Sebastian’s crowning glory, the Concha Bay, right in the heart of the city. But were we letting ourselves in for a complete showdown between city representatives?
Those in favour of the bicycle as a regular means of transport began gaining the support of more and more donostiarras from all backgrounds, including those working in the media, culture, university, sports, etc. Kalapie were thorough in their endeavours. And it was this same effort that attracted a multitude of sympathisers as well as significant support among local citizens, including the Residents Association of Antiguo and the Basque Camping Club, who were behind the movement almost from the outset.
There was, nevertheless, growing opposition from within sectors also claiming huge support among residents, such as many local business, headed up by the Mercantile Federation: “The general uneasiness among residents as well certain incidents are not mentioned in any of the reports… /… we continue to believe that the removal of one of the traffic lanes from the Concha Bay (for the purposes of building a cycle path) is an aberration and not in citizens’ interests,” was the opinion expressed by the Federation in a local press release.
In some European cities, however, cycle paths were already a reality: bikes circling the streets alongside motor vehicles, using lanes previously intended for traffic, was viewed with total normalcy; as a symbol of modernity. And not far behind following in their footsteps was a large section of the city of San Sebastian.
There was a bit of everything: Demonstrations were held, on foot and by bike; letters to the mayor were written and fly-posters went up in the streets. The level of local support which years previously had been unthinkable, eventually led to the detractors – or at least, those who had opposed replacing a lane of traffic with a cycle path – coming up with alternative suggestions. For example: a raised cycle lane going over the beach, or a tunnel designed to accommodate existing traffic levels and going under a large walkway.
The right path
Finally in 2000, San Sebastian Council’s Advisory Committee for Mobility approved a “Civil Mobility Pact”, which included the following statements: “we will give priority to whichever means of transport are most respectful of the environment (travelling by bike and public transport)”. Measures were taken to promote the use of the bicycle, highlighting the importance of its huge bid for the creation of a cycle path along the Concha Bay, which finally had its inauguration in 2002.
It soon became clear they’d made the right decision. As well as the frequent use made of the new cycle path, the loss of a single traffic lane proved unproblematic. Not that everything was plain-sailing from then on, but many obstacles had been overcome. People began to take notice of further proposals brought forward by Kalapie. Little by little, plans for a whole network of cycle paths began to take shape, with a principle T-shaped path starting in Gros and heading up towards Antiguo and going from the centre of San Sebastian as far as the district of Amara. It took a long time for Kalapie to gain recognition in the city. In 2008, however, they received the Citizens’ Achievement Medal from the city council.
Shortly before, in 2005, a new publication was launched entitled “Observatorio de la Bicicleta” (Bicycle Observatory). It was published periodically, the result of a pact between the Council and Kalapie, a hugely significant step forward in cooperative relations between a citizens’ association and the administration. It was to pave the way for numerous meetings and to this day, at the end of each year, an issue is published containing extraordinary information, suggestions and projects designed to promote the bidegorris and cyclist traffic.
In addition to all their efforts for obtaining cycle paths throughout the city, Kalapie defends the creation of similar links between areas located further afield from the centre of San Sebastian, such as with Martutene and Añorga; two such examples which also serve as a reminder that there is still much work to be done. Works currently being proposed to prevent a stretch of the Urumea river, that runs between Loiola and Martutene, from once again bursting its banks illustrate the kind of opposition that many of Kalapie’s proposals come up against. We have presented an alternative to the official plans. Our alternative suggestion was approved by the city council but so far only some of our proposals have been accepted by the URA (Basque Water Agency), the company set to begin work on the necessary reforms.
It is our belief that facilitating links between the different corners of the province is of utmost importance. Gipuzkoa has, at times, been conceived of as one big garden city, in which the various districts were to be separated by beautiful gardens – its natural fields and woodland – spread out among the gently rolling hills of the province. There are only short distances between the populated areas of our ‘Garden City’; those who work in a neighbouring town, or wish to visit friends or family, can often do so by travelling by bike.
This is the challenge we are currently facing. Acquiring bidegorris along the Concha Bay was tougher, however and the Provincial Council views our proposals positively. There are already several areas linked by cycle paths and the ‘red network’ continues to weave its web: from Zizurkil to Asteasu; Eskoriatza to Aretxabaleta; Zumarraga-Azkoitia; Añorga-Errekalde; Beasain-Ormaiztegi; Segura-Idiazabal, and so on.
In fact, of the 17 bidegorris in Gipuzkoa that keep track of their movements, it is estimated that the use of cycle paths throughout the province has more than doubled in the last 5 years. It was thanks to the Lehendabizi initiative, headed up by Kalapie, that the Provincial Council began planning and implementing the network cycle paths currently under development. Now they are working on a new plan: “The Bike Strategy of Gipuzkoa”, which will come to fruition over the next few years.
However, there are still certain problems that remain unresolved. One not insignificant matter is the controversy caused by pedestrians who walk along the bidegorris and the cyclists who still insist on using the pavement. So far there have been no accidents of the type which at any given moment could be cause for alarm. It’s more a matter of teaching good habits. Common civic sense should tell us where we need to be. Such difficulties however, are never solved overnight. There are simply pedestrians and cyclists for whom old habits die hard. Once again, all in good time.