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Barcelona, the myriad city
America might feel like heaven for consumers—but here, there are far more (and cheaper) choices.
I first noticed it trying to figure out the best option for electric scooters. This wasn’t something I’d had to grapple with in the U.S. A city either had an electric scooter app, or it didn’t.
Here in Barcelona, however, I was paralyzed by too much choice.
The word I keep coming back to is MYRIAD.
There are myriad options here: no one big chain, or one company, or service. Rather, there are multiple options for everything.
Start with the cafes: they are endless. Three to a block. The same goes for bars. There is at least one family-run market on every corner and at least half a dozen grocery chains, all within walking distance.
I know some progressive urbanist circles like to talk about the 15-minute city: “an urban planning concept in which most daily necessities and services, such as work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city.”
Here, we have a five-minute city. No bike (or e-scooter) necessary. Everything is walkable.
Even the beach, if you’re willing to go a bit longer than 15 minutes, which I did not. Thus I was trying to find an electric scooter that would take me. But there were too many to choose from.
I eventually settled on the city-sponsored bike share program, Bicing. For €45 euros per year, I could take any bike up to 30 minutes at a time. I pictured myself in February, a cold rain out, the temperature just above freezing, the wetness from the wheels being thrown up at my climbing pants as I biked my way across town to the climbing gym.
“Yes,” I thought. “I’m tough. I can do that.”
So I signed up and biked my way down to the beach. It took about 15 minutes.
In Washington D.C., where I lived on and off for a decade, there is exactly one, big bike share program: Capital Bikeshare. Here, there are at least four, each with their own focus: more scooters or fewer; bike shares with docking stations or without; only e-bikes or a combination of human-powered and hybrid.
There are also numerous private companies offering just electronic mopeds. When my son arrived, I signed up for one of those as well, as the bike shares aren’t available to kids under 16. I picked the company that seemed to have the most mopeds in my neighborhood. Last week, for the first time in many years, I rode one. We drove back along the waterfront from Born to Sant Antoni, my son riding shotgun behind me.
It’s a good way to travel for two.
In the U.S. I’ve come to expect consolidation over time as a near, general inevitability. We are typically stuck either with a local monopoly or forced to choose between two big chains: Home Depot or Lowes; Walmart or Target; Starbucks or… whatever local coffee shop has managed to survive the early 2000s Starbucks onslaught.
But that trend seems to have missed Barcelona. There are so many choices it’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed.
Take the grocery stores: chains from all over Europe are here to compete for my euros, micro-neighborhood to micro-neighborhood.
Within my aforementioned 5-minute radius, I can buy groceries from Consum, Lidl, Carrefour, Dia, Mercadona, Condis, or Bonpreu. Additionally, there are at least two dozen mini supermarkets, fruit and vegetable stands, charcuteries, pescaderías, bakeries, and wine stores.
Then there are the various ethnic grocery stores—there’s an Asian market less than a block from me that has two dozen kinds of siracha, any soy sauce, and all the coconut milks. Plus ramen, rice noodles, bulk spices, enough bulk rice to feed a building, and more. Pretty much anything you can imagine, all contained in a store smaller than your average 7/11.
There are so many choices for groceries around me that I tend to just walk into whichever is on my way back from wherever I’m coming. And if you ask me where my favorite cafe, bakery, or bar is, I must say that I couldn’t possibly tell you.
Another example: there are so many options for pizza around me that I’ve declared we must visit at least 10 different pizza places before we start to repeat. Friday is pizza night, so that means it’ll be more than 2 months before we start to repeat places. But even then, I can’t imagine we’ll settle on a favorite.
It all raises an obvious question: Why does myriad persist in a city like Barcelona, whereas in the U.S. decades-long trends toward consolidation have left most big, urban environments feeling almost unbearably sterile? Why does Barcelona support so much diversity, while in the U.S. we regard any downtown that has managed to support more than a tiny handful of individually-owned “mom and pop” stores as some kind of precious, cherished unicorn?
Of course, the answer is multifaceted. History, development patterns, cultural norms, regulations, and even the size of the storefronts in the old buildings appear to make a difference. It’s hard to be the everything store if there just aren’t spaces big enough for that.
But there are a lot of reasons. There has to be. Unfortunately, no one can wave a magic wand in the U.S. and make our cities like this city, though I’m sure many a mayor may wish they could.
And the choices can get a bit much; occasionally it’s just easier to have constraints. I love constraints. They save me time and mental bandwidth. There was a time, in my early adulthood, when I felt that if Trader Joe’s didn’t carry it, you didn’t need it. Part of the genius of Trader Joe’s is that it eliminated analysis paralysis: do you want organic peanut butter, or not? Chunky, or smooth? Four choices are all you need in that department.
Here, I can get a little stressed. Which of the bakeries has the best bread? I may never find out. Still—for now, I’m enjoying it all.
Last night, I went to pick up a bottle of cheap Spanish wine at Aldi: there were at least half a dozen reds that were under €3. Again, an abundance of choice.
I grabbed the cheapest, at €2.30—a rioja, denominación de origen verified. I went home, made dinner, and opened the bottle. It was fantastic. As they all are here.