Barcelona: The Drunken Metro and the Sober Bus

For just two days, over a weekend, I’ve visited Barcelona for the first time.


It has the sort of public transit system that will impress a North American at first: a large metro, pleasant buses with numerous stretches of exclusive lane, two practical funiculars, commuter trains, and two tram networks …

That’s the usual way most people summarize a transit system, isn’t it?  A list of technologies in use, which says nothing about how easy it is to get around the city. Did you notice how, when I said “two tram networks,” it sounded at first like that’s better than one tram network? The opposite is true, of course, and indeed they’re working on making it just one.

In the end, what matters is not the diversity of technologies, but how easy it is to get places, and this requires a different kind of transit tourism. Instead of going to a city to marvel at the technologies – picking trams over buses regardless of where they go, and riding every funicular, gondola, and odd little ferry – I prefer access tourism: I try to actually go places, and experience how easy or hard that is.  (I still experience serendipity of course, but it’s in sharper relief when seen against the bright background of intention.)

Only traveling with intention made me notice the oddness of the Barcelona metro. The transit agency’s full map is here, and a slice is coming up below.  You may also enjoy Jug Cerovic‘s more austere version here.  The network is complicated partly because it shows metro lines (L), tram lines (T) and regional commuter rail lines (R) but for this purpose I’ll focus on the Metro lines (L).

Some simple math: In an optimal grid network, lines keep going more or less straight, and intersect each other more or less perpendicularly.  You change direction in this network by making a connection.  The perpendicularity maximizes the area of the city that each connection could take you to.


Transit grids can be standard or polar, but are almost always some subtle fusion of the two. The polar grid arises when there’s a huge center on which the network logically converges, because desirable destinations are packed most tightly there.

Once you recognize these patterns, you notice how coherent most metro networks are. Even those that are kludges to a degree have usually been patched as much as possible to create some appropriate fusion of radial and standard grid effects.

But among the metros I’ve encountered Barcelona’s metro network seems unusually chaotic in its network structure, often seeming to meander without intention.


On the map above, for example, look at the medium blue line that enters the map area on the left at Pubilla Cases station.  This is Line 5.  It heads resolutely across the map from left to right, but two-thirds of the way across the city, at La Segrera, it seems to get distracted, suddenly turning 120 degrees and heading for the hills at the top of the map.

The network is also full of lines meeting tangentially instead of crossing.  For example, here’s a diagram of just Lines 5 and 2 (dark blue and purple, respectively) touching tangentially at (unmarked) Sagrada Família station:


There are numerous cases like this.  In each case, you would have a more coherent network — more likely to connect more people to more destinations with fewer transfers — if the lines traded paths at this point, crossing over each other rather than touching tangentially.

Again, most metros are kludges to some degree.  It’s unlikely that anybody alive in Barcelona today deserves blame for the odd patterns of the metro’s flow.  There are always historical reasons for why things have ended up as they are.  If you want to follow that history, here’s a fun video.

But meanwhile:  Does your head contain some received wisdom along the lines of: “European metros are so fantastic that why would anyone take buses?” I can remember when many Europeans used to believe this, but today, bus network improvement is one of the most important of European trends. The need for a rational bus network may be even more urgent if your metro is staggering around drunkenly, unable to follow a straight line.

What’s great about the new Barcelona’s bus network then, is not just that it’s a grid, but that it really wants you to know that it’s a grid, and how straight its constituent lines are:


The new lines have numbers preceded by “H” or “V” for “horizontal” or “vertical”.  (Vertical is quite literal: not just up-down on standard maps like this one, but also up to the hills or down to the sea.)  These frequent lines are also numbered in logical sequence across the city, so that as you get to know the network, a number reminds you of roughly where in the grid each line sits, and thus what it’s likely to be useful for.

The idea is that people should be able to keep a sense of the whole grid network in their heads.  If you just remember what H and V mean, and the sequence in which they’re numbered, you have an enormous amount of information the whole system. When you see any bus numbered this way, you have a general sense of which way it’s going, or at least along which axis.  And when you hear a bus route number, you can easily form a general sense of where it is.

There’s liberty in this kind of legibility.  You could measure it in terms of the number of useful places you can get to divided by the bytes of information you need to remember to have a workable map of how to get there.  Anyone who’s navigated Manhattan knows the difference between the regular grid across most of the island (high usefulness/byte) vs the patternless warren of streets at the south end (low usefulness/byte).  European cities tend to be especially challenged in this regard.

I talk about Barcelona’s bus network a lot because it’s one of the best examples of the marketing of network-scale legibility, an idea that’s almost unheard of in other parts of the world.  (Perhaps related, it also has a Wikipedia article that describes it with the same respect you’d expect in discussing a metro network.  Someone should translate it into English.)

Barcelona may have come upon its grid bus network, in part, because proudly legible grids were already its most celebrated urban planning idea. Most European street patterns are largely gridless and irregular. But in a sytematizing vision rivaling that of Haussmann in Paris, 19th century Barcelona embraced a single grid pattern for its fast expansion around the medieval core.

Photo by Alhzeiia via Wikipedia

Photo by Alhzeiia via Wikipedia

This plan is usually described as the Eixample district, but it’s really a principle rather than a place.  (The Catalan word eixample means “extension” or wider area”.)  The new grid flows across the city over a distance of about 7km (4.5mi). It therefore covers many neighborhoods, uniting them not just with a perfectly regular street pattern but also with the grid’s most distnctive detail: the “cut off” corners that create little square spaces at each major intersection.



Now that Barcelona is beginning to close many of these streets to fast car traffic, these little diamonds will be the next great public spaces in a city already rich with them. And a great bus network, whose citywide grid pattern you can remember, and that stops just down the street, will take you there.


Thanks to my Barcelona friend Andreu Orte for background, including the Line 5/2 diagram.








11 Responses to Barcelona: The Drunken Metro and the Sober Bus

  1. Eric September 14, 2016 at 7:35 am #

    Metros will always have higher speed and capacity than buses. If only the metro was the “sober” one and the bus the “drunk” one, but we can’t change history.

  2. Jim Gottlieb September 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

    Asian cities like Taipei are so full of off-the-wagon buses that in a recent five-week stay, exploring the city every day, I never once needed to transfer. Somehow, there was always a bus line going from where I was to where I wanted to go.

  3. alurin September 15, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    Thanks for this timely post! I also just got back from a trip to Barcelona, and noticed the incoherent Metro and the grid-patterned bus system (though I didn’t catch on to the V and H distinction).

    Do you know what the intention is behind the cut-off corners at each intersection? It actually seems to make getting around on foot a little more difficult; you have to travel slightly further to get through each intersection (and of course people are tempted to cheat and walk straight across), but it also makes it easy to accidentally turn where you do not intend to.

    • ararar September 17, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      apparently the architect thought steam trams would be installed all over and they had a big minimum turning radius, hence the cut-off corners.

      He also had beliefs that sunlight and airflow were essential for health, so that’s a further plus for open spaces, although I think this was more related to the interior courts rather than the streets.

  4. P September 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    They have a good commuter rail – Rodalies de Catalunya.

  5. Juanjo September 18, 2016 at 1:55 am #

    Thanks Jarrett. I just learnt about your blog!

    The history behind Eixample is quite interesting. The architect was Idelfons Cerdà.

    The bus network discussion in the city now goes around on how to increase its average speed which is quite low. On top of that there are plans to drastically reduce car transit in packages of 9 blocks in the Eixample area. If you are interested google “superilles barcelona”.

  6. Earle September 25, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    How about if instead of saying Sober we say Direction-Oriented and instead of Drunken we say Destination-Oriented? For example I’m meeting a friend in a bar at Union and Fillmore in San Francisco. I can tell him to get on the 45 bus heading north or to take the subway to Cow Hollow Station.

    Oops. No Cow Hollow Station. And hopefully not for a good long time. Because there isn’t adequate transit ridership there to justify the cost. Subways are so expensive that they should only be funded where ridership warrants; that is, between source-destination endpoint pairs with extremely high traffic. Else you’re being wasteful with the public’s money. Where is San Francisco building a subway? Between Chinatown and Market Street, the city’s paired endpoints with the highest ridership not yet served by subway.

    If the Barcelona subway evolved by continually adding the next highest ridership level of paired endpoints then I have to think that it was done right.

    What about CTA forcing Red Line passengers to transfer to continue northward on either the Yellow or Purple lines? OR SEPTA forcing Market Frankford riders to reboard to continue on the Norristown Line or the surfaces trolleys? Are those a little bit tipsy? Or do economics and ridership overrule straight lines on a map?

    Wouldn’t most tourists prefer to be able to look out the window and see more of a beautiful city then ride around in a dark tunnel?

  7. Earle September 26, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    When I surveyed major metro route patterns a while back I looked at Madrid and passed over Barcelona. Thanks to this article Barcelona is now on my bucket list. What a fantastic place. But no, I don’t think its Metro is drunk.

    Jarrett, that was one lousy map. Not only was it cluttered with regional rail routes but the leftmost quarter was clipped off. I look at Wikimedia’s map of the whole metro, showing trams but not commuter lines, and it paints a much different picture.

    Old (downtown?) Barcelona is bottom center on that map (bottom third from left on yours) and it is indeed the heart of a polar system. Five of the first six lines radiate out from there. The first crosstown, Line 5, does make a right turn 3/4 of the way across the map but it does so at a secondary hub station, La Sagrera. Not only does subway shoot out of there in six directions (this will grow to eight) but it’s a regional rail station as well.

    Do secondary hubs fit into your scheme of things? I’d say New York has a couple: downtown Brooklyn as well as Broadway Junction. The latter has one of those tangential touches (as does Broadway and Seventh: Times Square) but really, isn’t there a place for them as well? Is it always worth the expense to add ever deeper platform levels?

    I’m also not sold on the idea that two tram networks are of necessity bad. They’re both local feeders to a number of metro stations. That’s enough of a role for them; I don’t see a need for a full tram network overlaying a full metro network overlaying a full bus network. And I think there just might be a great big mountain physically separating them

    • Earle September 26, 2016 at 8:51 am #

      I gotta take part of that back. This other map does show commuter rail lines only with dashed lines rather than solid so they don’t distract from the metro routes.

  8. Simon Laflamme September 30, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    Line 5 and line 2 were actually intended to cross at Sagrada Familia, but poor planning made it necessary to swap the east branches of both lines so that line 5 took a swerve to north-west. The English Wikipedia article of line 2 ( shows the original intended plan under “Overview”. I’ve once read a more detailed account explaining that the tunnels of both lines were accidentally bored at the same depth, which resulted in a tragic encounter under Sagrada Familia… Diverting the lines was probably considered the only solution left (or the less expansive one).

  9. RossB October 10, 2016 at 8:12 am #

    Great article. Looking at the map initially, it seems crazy. But when you look at the history, it makes a lot of sense. I wonder if they considered re-orienting the lines? For example, the blue line could be altered, so that it at Sagrada Familia, it follows the purple line to the east. The reverse could happen as well. That would make the blue line more or less a straight east-west shot (slightly southeast, northwest) while the purple line heads more north-south (although still a bit drunkenly). That might not be worth the money, but it would provide for a more straightforward alignment.

    I think the long term plan for SkyTrain (in Vancouver) is for that. Right now the Millennium line is pretty weird. It doubles back on itself, making a huge circle (meaning that riding for very long just doesn’t make sense). As soon as it gets extended, I believe this will go away, and the lines will be a lot more “sober”. I’m not sure of the details, though (nor have I been able to find them) so feel free to correct me.