With its serious pollution problem and notorious driving styles, Milan is hardly renowned as a cycle-friendly city – but a radical new scheme aims to change that
Famed for Vespas, Fiat 500s and a somewhat erratic driving style, Italy is not a land known for a thriving cycling culture. While the metropolises of northern Europe have invested in innovative solutions to get citizens on their bikes, in the bel paese the car remains king.
But now Italy’s economic powerhouse, Milan, is seeking to bring back the bicicletta by paying people to cycle to work. The move follows the announcement in December of a €35m (£27m) government fund for sustainable mobility solutions, after Milan and other parts of the country were hit by dangerous levels of pollution.
Within the next few weeks local authorities nationwide will begin competing for the state cash, with Milan’s councillor for mobility, Pierfrancesco Maran, hoping to be first in line. While there is already a movement in Milan to make the city cycle-friendly, such as a successful bike sharing scheme, he believes more could be done.
“Reimburse those who go to work by bike; a project similar to the one in France,” Maran said. Under the French system trialled in 2014, employees were paid 25 cents per kilometre they pedalled to work. A pilot on the same principle is currently being rolled out in Massarosa, a small Tuscan town where 50 people are said to be taking part.
With the numbers in Milan likely to be considerably higher, Maran’s office has suggested using an app to keep track of people cycling to work: “The software exists; it’s not 100% flawless but no one’s thinking of giving large sums,” he said.
Maran has sought help from Milan’s Polytechnic University to work out the practicalities, with the institute’s mobility manager, Eleonora Perotto, advising on how to potentially set up the scheme.
One idea includes a system to monitor a person’s travelling speed, to check whether they are really cycling to work – although Milan’s heavy traffic could make this challenging. “In the city, those who travel by bike are almost faster than cars,” Perotto said. She is supportive of the scheme as a way to promote cycling in Milan, but admits she doesn’t cycle to work herself because of the distance and difficulty of the route.
Her sentiment reflects a key flaw in the proposal to pay people to cycle to work: that money alone is not enough of an incentive. The French scheme had moderate results, with only a few hundred people reportedly signing on out of more than 8,000 eligible, while later this year it will become clear how well Italians in Massarosa take to the idea.
Ralph Buehler, an associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech in the United States, believes a paying scheme has to be accompanied by other measures to make cycling a realistic option. He cited US research that found about 60% of the population are “interested but concerned” about cycling.
“If you don’t provide a safe cycling environment, you will only get a very small group of people,” Buehler said. “Just paying people alone will not have that much of an effect, because you don’t get to that part of the population which are ‘enthusiastic but concerned’.”
The availability of bike paths, secure parking and showers are all areas which could affect a person’s willingness to cycle to work. The relative ease of driving is also a factor, although Buehler warned it is difficult to enforce measures against cars before other options are in place.
“Experience shows that you can make it more difficult for people to drive, but it’s politically easier if you have other options: good incentives to cycle, good public transport, easy to walk.”
Even with all of these options available, people are less likely to cycle to the office if they are also incentivised to drive. Holger Haubold, a fiscal and economic policy officer at the European Cyclists’ Federation, says a counter-productive scheme exists in Belgium whereby people are offered company cars alongside a cycle-to-work scheme.
Despite this, Haubold says Belgium’s programme to pay people to cycle to the office has been successful. “The fiscal incentive is the most efficient way to promote cycling to work. Companies that have this incentive in place have significantly more employees cycling to work than those that don’t.” But he echoed Buehler’s view that broader bike infrastructure is fundamental to the success of the scheme.
In Copenhagen, which already boasts some of the world’s best cycling infrastructure, few people cycle as a way to save money on fuel or public transport. According to figures from Copenhagenize Design Company, which advises governments and organisations on making cities cycle-friendly, only 6% of people in Copenhagen cycle because it’s inexpensive.
The main reason people pedal their way through the city is because it’s quick and easy, 56% of cyclists said, while 19% do so for the exercise. Just 1% of people are motivated by environmental concerns; noteworthy in Milan, where cycling is seen as a way to tackle the city’s pollution problem.
Mikael Colville-Andersen, Copenhagenize’s chief executive, points out that poor air quality puts people off cycling. “Pollution creates an undesirable environment in a city, which doesn’t exactly encourage people to spend more time outdoors,” he said. “Pay-to-bike schemes are a nice idea, but if the city is clogged with toxic emissions, telling people to get out and cycle in it is a bit ridiculous.”
Pollution instead serves as a motivational factor for politicians, such as in Milan where all traffic was banned for a period in December owing to poor air quality. City hall also introduced a reduced €1.50 day ticket for public transport.
Ultimately, Buehler says, potential cyclists are more likely to respond to individual benefits – such as a cash in their pockets: “Many people are idealist and think the environment should be safe, but for many adding this direct, selfish benefit is a good strategy.”