Learning from Bologna’s (Italy) off-street network: tolerance, safety, thanks

The characteristics of a city’s off-street cycling network vary widely by culture. Expectations are adjusted accordingly. The most progressive cycling communities in the U.S. have set  high standards for what they consider to be suitable bicycle facilities. Many towns avoid paths that track along sharp turns (i.e., 90 angles), swerve around trees, mix with transit loading areas or pinch cyclists down to a two-foot-wide travel lane. Aspiring for facilities without these characteristics, generally speaking, is a good thing. Even more troubling are the instances where cycling facilities end abruptly, a subject that I studied in Minneapolis a few years back[1].

Maintaining high standards when designing facilities is noble. But it is also useful to consider—and learn from—contexts where the provision of bike facilities is far from perfect. Italy is one of those contexts and it is the country I have now called home for five months.

IMG_4953The world has a lot to learn from the Italians. High quality food comes to mind[2]. Wine is another. The focus on the simple life and the family is admirable as well. Bike facilities are not on the short list, generally speaking. But admittedly, the Italian transportation planners have been handed a difficult deck to play with (e.g., narrow rights of way and historic towns). Owing to lack of roadway space—even less space than in historic US cities—Italian bicycle planners are forced to do make do with what they have.

My current hometown, Bologna, is among the best endowed for cycling of the larger cities in Italy[3]. And, the nature of most of their off-street bicycle network would make the hair stand up on the back of most Minnesotan bicyclists. For the last in a series of posts (part 1  part 2)  focusing on the nature of off-street facilities, I offer three points based on observing their system; these points weave together themes of tolerance, safety, and thanks.

To aid in the research of testing Bologna’s off-street bicycle network, I actively recruited a willing human subject: my own seven year old son. He signed all the legal paperwork and has several years of experience cycling in mixed traffic conditions[4]. The below 3 minute video vividly reveals some of the good, the bad, and the ugly of Bologna’s system[5].

1. Most of what you observe in the video falls, by U.S. standards, into either the bad or ugly category. There are repeated pinch points, 90 degree turns, instances of bobbing and weaving around garbage bins, and the conflation of pedestrian and transit loading zones. However, all users are amazingly tolerant. This is a reflection of Italians in general (they represent an amazingly tolerant culture) but also an admirable characteristic of how they relate to their transportation system. There is tolerance of mixing with pedestrians; there is tolerance of slower speeds. Tolerance usually comes at the expense of efficiency. However, there is more than an ounce of tolerance that Americans could learn from these bicycling contexts. I will be writing more about such in the future.

2. By Minnesota standards, most of these scenes scream safety concerns— important to address considering the trembling fears of my child’s grandmother who lives in Shoreview, Minnesota. This is a subject that is intricately related to a recent New York Times editorial that raised an important issue about cycling safety. That editorial highlighted the lack of penalties in the U.S. for drivers who hit cyclists. The author, however, shirks a call for real change by simply suggesting cyclists should stop at stop signs.

The meagerness of penalties for drivers who strike cyclists in the U.S. defies belief; Minnesota is no exception. While living with my family here in Italy, I see drivers imitating Mario Andretti on a daily basis, most of them on cell phones. The roads are harrowingly narrow and traffic laws are mere suggestions. But I feel it is safer here for my 7 year-old son riding his bike than anywhere in U.S. Why? The courts in Italy generally favor vehicles lacking an engine. The “codice della strada” demands driver awareness of cyclists. Judges first ask if the car driver did everything possible to avoid impact. For those found guilty of even the slightest accident, insurance implications are astonishingly prohibitive. Real sentences are regularly issued. Italian drivers take these consequences seriously, so they treat bikes with caution. Whatever the characteristics of the off-street system, a fundamental issue is the need to right the balance between drivers and cyclists in the U.S. courts.

3. However bad you think the bicycle facilities are in Minneapolis (and other surrounding Minnesotan communities), you can hopefully seek solace knowing that those facilities rank pretty high in terms of quality, globally speaking.  There is always room for improvement, but for the moment, enjoy and be thankful for what you have stateside.

[1] Admittedly, however, our work focused primarily on the context of on-street facilities.

[2] As opposed to eating food for the sake of calories.

[3] There are small towns of Ferrara and Faenza which rival northern European counterparts. I will write about them later in the year.

[4] And, if you happen to recognize the bicycle he is on, it is the same one that our friends (the Christians, living in the Uptown neighborhood) used for both of their children while riding around Minneapolis. It is originally from Lucca, Italy.

[5] This video focused solely on off-street contexts outside the historic center. Cycling in the historic center and on other on-street facilities are different contexts. But, this issue does require some thinking about the nature of how on-street, off-street, and quasi-on/off street facilities are defined, an issue brought forth in comments to earlier posts.

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2 Responses to Learning from Bologna’s (Italy) off-street network: tolerance, safety, thanks

  1. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins November 30, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Very interesting post. According to this source, the bicycle mode share in Italy is 20%. I’m sure this is an imprecise estimate, but still at least double Minneapolis or Portland.

    It’s an interesting comparison, Bologna, where individual facilities are lousy but it appears there is a well connected network. American cities, in contrast, often have great individual facilities, but networks that are incomplete.

  2. Alessandro Rigolon December 18, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    Great post, Kevin. I’ve biked in Bologna for several years and, as an Italian, I believe we are exposed to traffic danger from when we are very young, so we learn to cope with it. To respond to Rueben’s comment, I think people in Italy may bike more because they live in denser cities, thus distances to cover are shorter, and because some parts of the historic city centers cannot be accessed by car.

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