PROJulie Kertesz / Flickr

The €40 million initiative is the city’s latest effort to reduce its heavy pollution.

In 2016, Madrid could finally get the cycle network it needs. Last week, the city announced a major plan to crisscross the Spanish capital with 33 new cycle paths. Costing €40 million ($44 million), the new network is due to be completed before the end of next year, a period that will also see the extension of Madrid’s bike-share scheme to a new zone south of the city center.

Proposed as part of the first city budget from the administration of Mayor Manuela Carmena, elected in June, the bike plan is a welcome change for the city. At present, less than 1 percent of all city journeys are being made by bike, while seasonal pollution levels have become so high that Madrid has tried to level off the worst peaks with car restrictions, free public transit, and alternate driving days. If Madrileños are going to get cleaner air and safer streets, some cars in the city clearly need to get off the roads. Making cycling easier won’t work as the sole tool for that objective, of course, but it’s still an important part of the package.

To be fair, the city has been pushing towards reducing car numbers for some time. Since January, Madrid has banned anyone without a guaranteed parking space from driving into a central section of the city, relieving pressure on a narrow-laned, often hilly zone never built with cars in mind. This made some streets more breathable but still did little to reduce car commuting from the wider region.

As for cycling, Madrid tried to make some headway under former Mayor Ana Botella, whose administration introduced a bike-share system and created 70 kilometers (44 miles) of cycle lanes. These efforts boosted the number of cyclists on the roads, but they’ve also been accused of being counterproductive. The total budget for the new lanes was very low—just €600,000—meaning the city had resources for little more than painting on lanes and adding some signage (not all of which was accurate). These lanes were frequently added not to roadways but to sidewalks, creating new tensions between cyclists and pedestrians that did little to improve the former’s image in the city.

Spanish pedestrian advocate organization A Pie protested to magazine Madridiario this winter:

“[The network] is already causing conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists, as pedestrians are being robbed of space. A negative image of the bicycle is being created, which can lead to opposition to the creation of more lanes.”

The new bike network should be a little more robust. It will run either on roadways or through parks and be properly segregated for protection. By giving cyclists a greater sense of safety and making bike routes across the city more seamless, it should do more to entice residents back onto two wheels. Judging by this El Pais graphic showing new lane locations, the bike plan will be well distributed across the inner city and properly connected, even as it falls somewhat short of forming a ubiquitous network available on every route.

A future where Madrid rivals Amsterdam or Copenhagen for its bike infrastructure may still be hard to imagine, but the new network is a vital, if belated start. Coming after the city’s emergency measures against peak pollution, it shows that Madrid cannot just fan away smoke when it gets too thick—it can also look for the source of the fire.

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