MILAN (dpa) – From Vespas to Ferraris, Italians have long had a love affair with motorised vehicles, but an urban transport revolution in their country’s second-largest city has caused many to ditch them in favour of public and shared transport options.
Commuters have been deterred from driving into Milan’s city centre thanks to a congestion charge scheme – similar to one in London – that levies a 5-euro (6.5-dollar) charge on drivers who enter a zone called Area C.
“Having a car is no longer a status symbol like it was in the past,” Mayor Giuliano Pisapia, 65, told dpa in an interview. “Young people have embraced this, even if it is more difficult to accept for older generations like mine or that of my parents.”
Since the introduction of Area C in January 2012, the number of cars entering Milan’s downtown zone every day has dropped from around 130,000 to 90,000. Over the same period, the city’s car-sharing programmes have grown to more than 180,000 subscribers.
“I hear more and more people telling me, ‘We don’t need a car,’” Damiano Di Simine, regional head of Legambiente environmental lobby, said. “Milan is de-motorising itself, it’s happening.”
Almost 80 per cent of Milan residents voted in favour of the congestion charge in a non-binding referendum in 2011. But bureaucratic wrangling, popular protests and legal appeals against the scheme delayed the creation of Area C, Pisapia said.
The centre-left mayor, who unexpectedly beat a Berlusconi-backed conservative incumbent three years ago, said sceptics of the congestion charge had come around to the idea, pointing to a poll from last year showing that 58.5 per cent of residents backed Area C.
“At first, even I did not agree with the principle,” said Pisapia, a trained lawyer and former hard-left sympathiser. “The horrific traffic jams that you see on the days Area C is turned off have convinced (the sceptics). I am quite sure that any administration coming after me would not scrap it.”
Nationwide economic trends have also impacted car use. Amid the deepest recession since World War II, car sales in Italy are about half what they were during a 2007 peak and have been overtaken by bicycle sales for the first time in almost 50 years.
Not everything is rosy in Milan, however. Critics say Area C needs to be expanded considerably to solve Milan’s endemic pollution problems, which have prompted threats of economic sanctions from the European Union.
Some point out that congested urban roads outside of Area C border many of Milan’s schools and produce exhaust fumes that put children’s health at risk.
“This administration is irresponsible, malicious and criminal” in its refusal to further restrict traffic, despite evidence that car emission levels are still unacceptably high, Anna Gerometta from Genitori Antismog (Anti-smog Parents) told dpa.
Using open source data supplied by local authorities, Gerometta’s association calculated that more than 50 per cent of Milanese schools are located less than 100 metres away from “motorway-level” traffic congestion.
Though congestion charges have been a boon for Milan – bringing almost 30 million euros into city coffers – Pisapia said several logistical challenges make an expansion of the scheme possible only in the long-term.
Other traffic-calming measures were expected to deliver results in the meantime, he said, mentioning the introduction of more pedestrian areas, lower speed limits and wider shared-transport options, soon to include electric bicycles.
Milan has four metro lines, with a fifth under construction. It may not be much by international standards, but the city’s public transit leads the pack in Italy, where transit firms in other major cities like Rome or Naples do not have enough money to cover payroll or petrol costs.
Still, urban transportation reform seems to be on the international agenda as Milan joins other cities in its crusade to deter drivers.
In July, Helsinki announced a 2025 objective to develop a public and shared transport network so efficient that it would give citizens no reason to own a private car.
This is the future, Pisapia said. “For Italy as a whole, it might be difficult to get there. But in Milan, a strong reduction in private car traffic is not just possible, it is likely,” he concluded.