After devastation, Italians demand protection against air pollution

Italy has made many of the headlines during the coronavirus pandemic. In the early stages, it was Europe’s worst affected country, and the hot spot was around Milan, a city with a strong car culture and very poor air quality. Milan made other headlines too, announcing a supposedly ambitious plan to help cyclists and pedestrians, but like with most of Italy, the news is mixed as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.

In April, Milan announced it was transforming 35km of road space into cycle lanes and wider pavements. The potential for improvements in air quality was huge, because Milan has suffered for years from high pollution levels. A recent report from the Kyoto Club, a T&E member, and the National Research Council for Air Pollution estimated the reduction in traffic caused by lockdown at between 30% and 75%, with a corresponding reduction in emissions – NO2 was down by 29% in March and 43% in April compared to the average for the same period 2016-2019. The challenge was to keep pollution levels low after lockdown, and that was when the announcement of the expansion of cycling and walking space was made.

The reality has proved less encouraging. As restrictions began to be eased, the mayor of Milan ordered that all cars could enter Milan’s central low-emissions zone until 14 June, and the larger LEZ has been suspended indefinitely. London, in contrast, has already reinstated its congestion charge and Ultra-Low Emission Zone. The result was a surge of car traffic back on to the streets, with pedestrians and cyclists struggling to find the space they had enjoyed during the peak lockdown period.

While the city remains a long way from its target of 23km of cycle lanes (part of the 35km of transformed streets announced in April), it has at least begun the work. By early June, the first 6km of cycle lanes from the centre to the extreme northern suburbs – along the overcrowded Metro line – had been completed. Relative to other cities in Europe, Milan’s cycle network is a drop in the ocean, but it’s a start.

Unfortunately the Lombardy region, of which Milan is the biggest city, has forbidden cyclists from taking their bikes onto regional trains. This measure will hit the many residents from outside Milan who rely on the train to get into the city but who need to travel in the centre after their train journey.

It is a mixed picture in Rome, too, where NO2 concentrations fell by 71% in April compared with the average for the previous four years. The mayor has promised a 150km plan for cycling, and work has started on the first cycle priority lanes. However, Rome has followed Milan’s example by suspending the LEZ until at least the end of August (the same as Turin).

Elsewhere in Italy, Turin has decided that all its service/side roads will become bike priority lanes as part of plans for 80km of new cycle lanes. Florence and Bologna are speeding up procedures to implement the cycle networks that are already planned. And the small city of Pesaro (90,000 inhabitants) is setting an example for the whole of Italy by strengthening its network of cycle lanes.

In a separate development, four regional capitals (Milan, Turin, Bologna and Cagliari) have announced plans to boost electric public transport by 2030. This is important because a fund made available by the national government last year for buying alternative-fuelled buses has now been opened up to diesel buses, under the excuse that more buses are needed quickly. Italian NGOs are trying to secure an amendment to the recovery decree that prevents this money from being used for diesel buses.

The good news is that cycling is growing faster than ever in Italy, especially in cities with more than 250,000 inhabitants. And there have been small victories, such as the government’s decision to adopt a policy of ‘good mobility’ that will boost e-bikes and legalise electric scooters of the kind provided by companies Lime and Dott. 

There’s strong public support to avoid going back to car-clogged cities so as to keep air clean. The YouGov survey T&E commissioned shows that four in five Rome and Milan inhabitants demand protection against air pollution – even if it requires giving more public space to walking, cycling and public transport. 

The lockdown period showed that Italy can reduce traffic and air pollution, but it’s a long road to making such reductions permanent.

T&E’s Italian member organisations assisted in the research for this article