I recently spent five weeks in Bilbao, the principal city of the Basque Country in Spain, during a summer semester study abroad term. Many of us idealize Europe’s sustainable urban development models, citing the high density living and various forms of public transportation as well as a difference in lifestyle choices as very resource-efficient ways of living. Before going to Europe, I had doubts that what I would see would contrast much with the United States. What I found in Bilbao was something very rare in the United States, a medium-sized city allowing complete independence from the personal automobile.
The major influence on Bilbao’s development would have to be its geography. Situated in a valley, the city of over 300,000 residents has nowhere to grow but up. A lot of the new building developments are either renovations or constructed in place of industrial structures that are now not much more than remnants of the shipbuilding past of the city. It is true that the industrial sector of Bilbao’s economy still exists, but it is now located outside of the city center. The result of this trend has been an increasingly walkable city that is aesthetically pleasing, not only due to the picturesque landscape, but also the beautifcation projects the city has undertook. As expected, walking is almost assuredly the principal form of transport for the people of Bilbao, who can be seen in countless numbers walking throughout the city at all hours of the day.
In addition to its walkability, Bilbao is blessed with several forms of public transportation, including the metro and tram systems, both constructed in the last fifteen years. Bilbao also features an extensive bus system, called the Bilbobus, but the jewel of the city still has to be its metro and tram. Both are quiet, clean, safe, and only crowded during peak hours. The metro extends beyond the city limits, servicing Greater Bilbao with over a million residents. This allows for easy, quick and cheap transportation during the day to the coastal beach communities as well as transport for those living in the near suburbs. With plans for further expansion beyond the two lines it currently features, the Bilbao Metro will continue to be one of the most modern transportation systems in Europe.
In addition, the other regions of Spain are highly accessible through the bus and train systems. Daily trains departing from Bilbao can reach any city in Spain, and several buses are available each day for each destination. The comfort and duration of the trains leave something to be desired, but at the price of 75 euros roundtrip to and from Barcelona, including an overnight trip with a sleeping car, I couldn’t complain. Whether you take bus or train, the price will range anywhere from 10 to 50 euros, depending on when you buy and the destination. The interregional train and bus systems are also very well connected with the metro systems of the main cities, making it very easy to get around the country.
Overall, Bilbao and Spain as a whole lived up to their reputation as a part of Europe for being much more sustainable in their form of development. Benefitting from many recent projects, Bilbao is definitely one of the best kept secrets of Europe and the world, containing museums, beaches, and a very laid back way of life, as well as being incredibly beautiful. While much of the development patterns were forced by geography, other medium sized cities could benefit the same way that Bilbao has by implementing efficient public transport and encouraging denser growth.