When Alexandre Obino decided to start commuting by bike from his home in the southern suburb of Milano 3 to his office in Milan’s city centre, two things made the 10-kilometre journey feasible.
He bought an electric bike to avoid “arriving at the office completely sweaty.” And, by happenstance, his route took him along an older path open to bikers and pedestrians that runs parallel to the Naviglio Pavese, a canal stretching from Milan down south to the city of Pavia. For the most part, this path is separated from the road.
“I probably wouldn’t ride the same distance and trail without a bike lane, because when you have to bike close to the cars, especially at night, it’s too dangerous,” says Obino, who works for a media agency. “The small part of my ride that is close to cars is always risky. There is always a car that passes super close to your bike, people are on the phone, they’re not focused.”
“It’s always more dangerous, and if it’s more dangerous, you are not enjoying your ride,” he adds.
“There is always a car that passes super close to your bike, people are on the phone, they’re not focused”
Enjoyment is not the first word that comes to mind when cycling in Milan, a city where it’s not uncommon for bike lanes to end abruptly or be blocked by a car, its driver disappearing into a nearby shop or bar. But with Cambio (“Change,” a word that also refers to shifting bike gears), its new cycling mobility plan, the Metropolitan City of Milan (Città Metropolitana di Milano) hopes to make cycling in and out of the city and its environs as pleasurable and practical as Obino’s commute, and ideally more so. A new network of cycling highways, if built as planned, would be a supercharged version of the path Obino uses and get more people like him to ditch their cars and choose pedal power.
While Amsterdam streets are built for daily cycling on omafiets (“grandma bikes” with a comfortable upright position) and half of commuter trips in Copenhagen are made on a bike, Milan is still steeped in Italy’s famous car culture (an Instagram account dedicated to spotting supercars in the city has 26,000 followers). But this makes the Lombardy capital a useful case study because it is one of many European cities huffing and puffing in the middle of the pack, working towards becoming bike friendly.
More importantly, getting these urban centres across the finish line is key for the EU to reach its long-term goal of being climate-neutral by 2050. In December 2021, the European Commission elevated cycling to an EU-wide policy priority with its proposed Efficient and Green Mobility Package. The package included an Urban Mobility Framework, which sets out European guidance on how cities can cut emissions and improve mobility by focusing on public transport, walking and cycling.
Not long after, in April 2022, the Commission announced that 100 cities – Milan included – will participate in the EU Mission for climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. Adina Vălean, the European Commissioner for Transport, cited “developing extra cycling infrastructure” as one of the tools these cities can implement to reach the ambitious targets set.
Announced in November 2021, the Metropolitan City of Milan’s Cambio plan has very specific aims: to build 24 cycling highways and effect a 20 per cent modal shift to cycling by 2035. Sixteen radial lines will run between Milan city centre and the surrounding municipalities. These radial lines will be bisected by four circular routes, while their outer extremes will be connected by four greenways. The map, where each line is identified by its own colour, brings to mind a psychedelic spider web.
The plan’s breadth reflects the fact that the Metropolitan City of Milan, which prior to 2015 was officially known as the Province of Milan, encompasses over 130 municipalities, each of which is responsible for its own cycling infrastructure.
The routes were allocated to link not only Milan with its outer municipalities, but also the outer municipalities with one another so that people who work or go to school in a neighbouring town can make these everyday trips by bike.
“We want to encourage the daily use of the bicycle, so not only for Saturdays and Sundays to take day trips, not for tourist use, just for daily use,” explains Beatrice Uguccioni, the mobility councillor for the Metropolitan City of Milan and the political force behind Cambio.
She was also quick to point out that the cycling corridors, set to total 750 kilometres when completed, are not your average bike path or cycle lane – they are four metres wide and run alongside roads but are completely separated from cars by physical barriers to protect cyclists and pedestrians. These corridors would be a big step up from the path that Obino rides to work, which while mostly separated from the road is an ad hoc solution used by both bikers and pedestrians.
Separated cycle lanes are required on busy roads if the goal is to get more people moving around the city by bike. “People don’t drive while keeping in mind the fact that there are other road users, more vulnerable road users,” says Claudio Magliulo, who heads the Italian office of the Clean Cities Campaign.
A pan-European network of grassroots groups and environmental organisations, Clean Cities encourages European cities to reach zero-emission urban mobility by 2030. Magliulo has his work cut out for him: Italy has one of the highest motorisation rates in Europe – in Rome, for instance, there are more motorised vehicles than driving licenses. The country is also home to almost half of Europe’s 30 most polluted cities, according to the European Environment Agency (most of the other cities are in Poland but, as Magliulo puts it, “they have the excuse that they still burn a lot of coal”).
In his opinion, “cycling is an essential piece of how we are going to solve a lot of these issues we’re grappling with”.
On that front, Cambio is certainly an ambitious piece of planning. And with a projected cost of €250 million, it is also a big investment: almost €70 per person in the Milan metropolitan area, whereas “in Italy, over the past 10 years, we’ve invested roughly €1 billion, or even less than that on [cycling] infrastructure, which is basically €7 per person over 10 years,” explains Magliulo.
One section of Line 6, which connects Milan’s city centre to the suburb of Segrate, has been completed using funds from Il Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza, Italy’s economic recovery plan. Referred to as PNRR, it was allocated €195 billion by Next Generation EU, the Commission’s post-Covid recovery fund. “Now there are five more in the pipeline that [also] received funding through the PNRR,” says Uguccioni, the mobility councillor.
“The previous Minister [of Infrastructure and Transport] considered Cambio to be very interesting and therefore was willing to support it financially,” she adds. Now, with a new government in power, it’s a game of wait and see. Uguccioni’s office is also exploring potential public-private partnerships to build the remaining routes.
Beyond the existential question of funding, there is the critical issue of how these cycle highways will link up with the city centre of Milan and the downtowns of roughly 100 other municipalities.
According to Gabriella D’Avanzo, head of the Metropolitan City Sustainable Mobility Service, “there is a dialogue with Milan and the other municipalities, and we planned the cycling highways to match up where there is another bicycle route.”
The problem with cycling in downtown Milan, however, is quite literally starts and stops. Deirdre Quinn regularly biked in Milan for 11 years before relocating to Amsterdam with her Italian husband and two young sons in 2017. She moved back to her old neighbourhood in Milan this year and has noticed some improvement: “They put in new paths – not so much but enough that I see, okay, they’re expanding this idea.” But the path, she adds, “is there and then it kind of ends.”
Piecemeal improvements, some argue, won’t be enough to bring about a significant modal shift. While Cambio addresses the relatively straightforward question of bike infrastructure along main roads, things get thornier in the city centre “because you have to decide whether urban space is something that’s wholly given to cars,” Magliulo, the sustainable mobility activist, says.
In his opinion, a radical overhaul of road infrastructure is required: public space must be given to people, not cars.
“That means facing the opposition of people who feel like they have a divine right to park in front of their home and liberating that space so that people can socialise, can move in a more sustainable way, children can play, old people can play chess,” he explains.
Amsterdam inevitably crops up as an example of how one city has gotten it right, mainly for restructuring streets to prioritise cyclists’ safety and enforcing low speed limits. “You just feel it as a car [in Amsterdam] that this is not your environment, you’re just a guest here, so you have to be very slow and very careful,” Magliulo says.
Or, as Quinn puts it, “in the Netherlands the bike rules everything, even the cars.”
But this was not always the case: it took concerted action and civil disobedience from protestors and activists, outraged by the staggering number of child traffic deaths, to spur municipal policymakers to push cars out of Amsterdam and clear the way for cyclists and pedestrians in the 1970s.
Italians seem to agree that the success of any cycling infrastructure is ultimately measured by how safe it is for children to get around by bike. Magliulo, who lives in the Bologna metropolitan area, describes a terrifying near-miss while riding with his toddler. Quinn recalls that her 10-year-old used to bike to school by himself in Amsterdam, something that feels out of the question in Milan.
The issue of cycling to school is also raised by D’Avanzo, the Metropolitan City employee, who notes that the scuole superiori, or upper secondary schools, are important hubs in the Cambio plan, and Obino, who believes that separated bike lanes would incentivise more people to bike their kids to school.
Creating a kinder, gentler and safer urban environment for youngsters seems like it should garner support across the political spectrum. But it would require Italians to renounce a religious-like devotion to cars.
“Milan is a city that could be completely set up for [the bike] lifestyle,” says Quinn, a sentiment that was echoed by many. “But it’s more than putting in the paths, it’s changing the mindset, and that’s where it gets tricky.”