Over the past few days as the population begins to emerge from lockdown, a quiet revolution has taken place in Italy. Though there are fewer restrictions in place, social distancing is still very much part of daily life. It has changed the way spaces are defined and how people move around to such an extent that the bicycle is now enjoying a revival on Italian streets. In Italy’s major cities traffic has been reduced to make way for cyclists. This would have been quite a challenge just a few months ago, but despite the complex configuration of many city centres, councils have readily embraced the idea. The recent ‘Decreto Rilancio’ (Relaunch Decree) has also played its part in kicking off this new trend by offering incentives and cash back for the purchase of bicycles and other forms of micro-mobility. People have been persuaded to opt for a more sustainable means of transport thanks to a contribution of up to 500 euro to cover 60% of the cost of bicycles, scooters, monowheels, hoverboards and Segways, whether standard or electric versions. The country is once again discovering the pleasures of its city centres using a sustainable means of transport and, in a certain sense, it is as if history were repeating itself.
THE BICYCLE ERUPTS ONTO THE SCENE
Very few people know that the bicycle was invented during a natural disaster, a global crisis not unlike the one we are experiencing today. In 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia marked the birth of the bicycle. The effects of the eruption lasted for 3 months, making our planet 3° warmer, influencing the climate in the northern hemisphere, causing crops to fail, creating food shortages, triggering diseases like cholera and driving mass migration above all to America and Northern Europe. An aristocrat from the German city of Karlsruhe, Karl von Drais saw an opportunity in a time of crisis and in 1817 he invented the Laufmaschine, the forerunner of the modern bicycle.
Interestingly, the bicycle is once again a symbol of recovery providing us with an environmentally-friendly, healthy, practical and low-cost alternative to cars. Italy’s FIAB (the cycling enthusiasts federation) has been lobbying for active safety policies for many years. “When we see people riding their bikes we should thank them because they are safeguarding our well-being”, maintains Alessandro Tursi, FIAB’s president. “Choosing to cycle changes the way we get around our cities and significantly reduces both the number of cars on our streets and levels of pollution. As a result, there are fewer road accidents because we tend to be more careful and to drive more slowly. But first and foremost, we are being kind to our health because we can maintain social distancing and train our immune systems according to the WHO.”
The Italian government’s investment in cycle lanes will, therefore, benefit the wider population as well as the nation’s cyclists. “Just think that most traffic jams are the result of short trips”, explains Paolo Ruffino, an expert on urban mobility and consultant to Bikenomics in Amsterdam. “The data and official figures recorded by ISTAT (Italy's national statistics bureau) and ISFORT (Higher Institute for Education and Research on Transport) show that most journeys in our towns and cities take place within an area of 3 kilometres or a 15-minute bike ride.” Until very recently, Italians preferred to cover such short distances by car. Ruffino continues, “Consider the fact that more than 30% of trips between home and the office and home to school are just 1 kilometre.” Just 30% fewer vehicles on the road would also benefit drivers with further to travel, meaning fewer traffic jams, less stress and an improvement for public transport too.
ITALY ON TWO WHEELS
The enthusiasm of cyclists and its newcomers may seem premature when you take a look at the state of bicycle lanes and streets in Italy’s major cities. However, the plan of action in place across the country looks promising. “The layout of some Italian cities can be traced back to medieval times and some effort will be needed to ensure that cyclists and pedestrians can move around safely”, explains Francesca Luzzana, author of “Come fare la manutenzione della bicicletta” (a manual on bicycle maintenance). Used to spending her time on two wheels, she is more sensitive than most to the subject and has noticed that the sale of E-bikes on Google has soared by 140% in just a few days. Those who are not already on their bikes soon will be. Milan’s “Strade aperte” (Open Roads) scheme has 35 kilometres of cycle lanes which could potentially be hooked up to other grids and work is planned to make junctions safer for cyclists, for instance. The city’s inhabitants are already taking advantage of the scheme. “Bicycle shops have been busy and people are dusting down the bikes stored in the attic or the cellar”, reports Marco Mazzei, head of communications at AssoBici Milano (association of bicycle traders). “I heard of one shop in Milan that had to close its doors at the weekend to deal with all the orders.” Bologna and Florence are also making their streets bike-ready, linking its cycle lanes to outlying districts in the case of Bologna or designing a 12-kilomtere bicycle route through Florence leaving 10 kilometres for emergencies. Rome appears to have the most ambitious investment plans. “Rome has started much later than other cities in the Centre-North of the country and the rest of Europe”, explains FIAB’s Alessandro Tursi. “The city has twice the number of inhabitants as Milan but is much more sprawling. The plan foresees 150 kilometres of lanes for the emergency by the end of the year plus 12 kilometres of low-speed cycle lanes that had already been planned.” The capital’s cycle lanes have been designed to be ‘temporary’ but the hope is that they will stay and be improved.
PEDAL AND EVOLVE
Businesses are also sending out positive messages about clean air and are encouraging their employees to cycle to work. FIAB has successfully raised awareness of the advantages for the world of work. “We approached the government task force in mid-April, mayors and the media also came on board to support this sustainable means of transport.” In May, FIAB began to promote a project called “Casa-lavoro: Prima la bici” - home to work – bike first - and produced a set of guidelines for companies with the aim of making workplaces bike-friendly and encouraging employees to cycle to work.
The guidelines start with simple solutions like setting aside facilities for changing, shower, locker and drying rooms. Companies could then install bicycle racks, provide a covered area or garage where bikes can be stored or for small repairs. This is a much-needed transformation which could have dramatic repercussions if it is not well received. “If we did nothing and commuters all took to using their cars, a 20-30% increase in traffic would be enough to bring our cities to a halt with a cost to society of 14 billion euro (0.7% of the country’s GDP)”, Ruffino explains.
BIKE-NOTES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The time is ripe for Italian transport systems to change gear and follow the example of European cities where bicycles have long been the preferred means of transport. “Our priority is to reduce the number of cars per 100 inhabitants”, Mazzei continues. “In Italy that figure is currently 60. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin and Paris have 33-34 cars per 100 inhabitants.” Conditions are ideal for this to happen and the Dutch model proves the point, though some may believe otherwise. “During the post-war years, the Dutch embraced the American model and wanted to travel by car. Then the oil crisis brought the country to a standstill and people realized that the widespread use of cars was simply not resilient.” From a certain perspective, Italy today is comparable to the Netherlands in the 1970s, coronavirus can be likened to the oil crisis and the key word is still resilience.