Can Italy make room for its two-wheeled road users?

Can Italy make room for its two-wheeled road users?

Cyclists attend a Critical Mass gathering in Rome, Italy, in June 2013.

(Alfredo Gagliardi)

On the last day of January 2018, 35-year-old Valentina Proietti Nicolai died as she made her way home while riding her bicycle on one of Rome’s busiest streets. A car hit her during the evening rush hour. She sustained injuries that were too extensive to overcome.

Valentina was a commuter, but 37-year-old Michele Scarponi, a world-famous professional cyclist with Italy’s Astana team and winner of the 2011 Giro d’Italia bicycle race, suffered the same fate. He was killed after a van driver ran into him as he trained in his hometown of Filottrano in central Italy.

Italian cyclists say that Valentina and Michele were victims of the country’s poor road safety provisions for cyclists. Bike lanes and pedestrian-only streets are not easy to find, especially in the country’s capital city. With just 225 kilometres of bike paths, Rome lags far behind other European cities such as Paris (with 700km of cycle lanes) and Berlin (with 1,000km), according to the Italian investigative TV show Presa Diretta.

Some cities occasionally organise environmental campaigns to boost bicycle usage, but in many cases, even when cycle paths exist, they fail to protect cyclists. In Rome, for example, bike lanes are sometimes poorly planned, tapering off into the oncoming traffic or dead-ends; cars and motorcycles often fail to respect bike lanes which puts cyclists in danger.

For many people, taking their bikes out onto the streets is a challenging and a scary undertaking. According to the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (Italian Statistical Institute), 275 bikers died and 16,413 were wounded in road accidents during 2016 alone. By contrast, the Danish Statistics Agency recorded the deaths of 31 cyclists and 775 injuries in road traffic accidents in Denmark during the same year.

Italian bike activists are increasingly demanding an improvement to the country’s road infrastructure in order to prevent a rise in casualty figures. “We need to redesign our cities to have in mind our citizens and not their cars,” says Giulietta Pagliaccio, president of Federazione Italiana Amici della Bicicletta (FIAB, or the Italian Federation of the Friends of Bicycles), a cycling lobbying group.

The dominance of cars on Italian streets, in Pagliaccio’s opinion, is a consequence of Italy’s ineffective public transportation system. Many Italians decide to use their cars instead of taking trams and buses to avoid the risk of being late for their appointments, even if driving cars can be slower due to traffic congestion.

In Italy, driving a car is also a matter of habit. “We take our cars to go to buy bread in a shop that is kilometre away thinking it will be faster but then, we get nervous because we cannot find a parking space,” says Pagliaccio, noting that only four per cent of Italians use bikes as a mode of transportation.

With 62.4 cars per 100 inhabitants, Italy has the highest number of cars per capita in Europe, according to the global automotive industry review L’Osservatorio Autopromotec. Germany comes in second with 55.7 cars per 100 inhabitants, followed by Spain with 49.3 cars per 100 inhabitants and France with 47.9 cars per 100 inhabitants.

Reclaiming public space

Pagliaccio, a cyclist herself, says it is necessary for pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim the use of public space in order to win back the pavements and cycle paths. “It sometimes means taking space from those who have too much of it.”

And that is exactly what some cyclists are doing. People across the country are joining cycling groups, organising petitions and protesting for more rights and safety for cyclists. In big cities such as Rome and Milan, bikers sometimes meet during the night, armed with paintbrushes and white paint, to make informal ‘do-it-yourself’ bike lanes.

On 28 April, Association Salvaiciclisti (Save the Cyclists) will organise a protest called Bicifestazione in Rome. The organisers want to warn the government about the high number of cyclists dying on Italian roads while demanding shared space on the roads and a highway code that caters for all road users, and not just cars. “We want support for those who want to change the way they commute in Italy,” Salvaiciclisti wrote in a Facebook post.

Three weeks after Rome’s Bicifestazione, Florence will host its annual Ciemmona event, where thousands of bikers are expected to occupy the streets. Ciemmona is part of an international network of Critical Mass events which started in the United States in 1992 as a spontaneous bike-led protest against the dominance of cars and has spread around the world.

“We need to increase safety, because perception of low safety is one of the main barriers to cycling,” says Luca Pietrantoni, a professor of health psychology at the University of Bologna.

Pietrantoni, who coordinates the EU-funded XCYCLE project aimed at reducing the number of accidents involving cyclists, thinks that local pro-cycling policies are the key to success.

“Promoting bicycling should be accompanied by planning and design of safe bicycle facilities,” he tells Equal Times.

Moving forward

Some Italian cities are already working on it. The northern city of Ferrara is known as the ‘city of bicycles’ because of its no-car zones in the city centre, advanced paths for bikes-only and bicycles for rent available across the city. Around 30 per cent of citizens of Bolzano and Pesaro – other bike-friendly northern Italian cities – use bicycles for transport; these are amongst the highest rates in Europe. Additionally, the municipality of Pesaro has built a ‘bicipolitana’ – an 86-kilometre cycle highway that connects all parts of the city.

However, significant parts of the country still lag far behind. Italy is 17th out of 28 EU countries when it comes to “responsiveness” toward cyclists, according to the Cycling Barometer of the European Cycling Federation (ECF). The list is based on the number of people who use bikes for commuting, the number of cycling trips made by tourists, the scale of pro-cycling advocacy groups, an assessment of cycle safety and the number of bicycles sold per year.

Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden are cycling havens with high percentages of people commuting with bikes, advanced infrastructure for cycling and well-organised biking communities.

“Why are Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm unique?” asks Florinda Boschetti, a senior manager in environment and health in transport for Polis, a pan-European network advocating for innovative transport solutions. “It is about the people. They put people at the centre of planning. Both city space planning and designing the transport network. Are we doing the same in Italy? Well, with some exceptions, I would say no.”

The Italian government is showing readiness for progress. After years of lobbying by the FIAB, the Italian Senate finally adopted the Framework Law on Cycling Mobility in December 2017. This new legislation foresees the promotion of bicycles as means of transport and the allocation of resources for bicycle infrastructure and bicycle sharing services.

Some cycling advocates are sceptical about its implementation but the draft EU Cycling Strategy gives them hope. If adopted, it could help elevate cycling to an equal partner in transport, with plans to expand cycle usage in the European Union by 50 per cent and reduce the mortality and injury rate of cyclists by half by 2030.

Boschetti believes that this document could also be useful for civil society and advocacy groups lobbying for further investment in cycling in Italy. “The Strategy would encourage national authorities to develop a comprehensive national cycling plan and set aside the adequate financial resources,” she concludes. If that happens, Italian cyclists might finally be able to enjoy the same kind of infrastructure for two wheels that road users get for four wheels.