Success is not IN the Water; it is BECAUSE of it? Bicycling in Ferrara (Italy)

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[Part 2 of the EU BICI, Part 1 on Seville here]

It’s hard to figure out how Ferrara (Italy) achieved legendary status among Europe’s top cycling towns. The answer might not be in the water; but it could be because of it. The ferraresi embrace the bike as much as any place I have seen. But in way lacking self-consciousness, most residents fail to consider themselves exceptional in this respect among neighboring cities.

The larger region, Emilia Romagna, is home to some of Italy’s highest bicycling use; Ferrara leads with 28% cycling mode split[1]. The area is defined by the flat and fertile pianura padana (River Po). Agricultural production reigns supreme, helping to further communitarian mindsets. For Ferrara, near the river’s delta, this meant periodic flooding and economic depression (the  depression was because of the water). Collective decision-making and moderate leftist tendencies are woven thick into traditions.

In 1957, when Fiat—the Turin based car company that helped propel Italy’s post-war economic boom—rolled out its “la cinquecento” (500 model), most Italians took to it like wildfire. Owing to the area’s relative depression, locals say that Ferrara’s uptake for the car was slower. The delay possibly helped communitarian ideals further take root. While la cinquecento (and successive models) ultimately provided unparalleled transport options, the bike had always been viewed as the reliable and economic means of travel in these fog-infested, agriculturally rich locations. A tradition was reinforced.

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…for the elderly in fur coats

Motorization started infiltrating city centers across the country. But folklore has it that Ferrara created Italy’s first pedestrian zone in its historic core in the 1970’s. The automobile’s role was initially questioned. Fast-forward less roughly twenty years (~1991) and nationwide travel data for Italy was first released. Now backed with statistics, the ferraresi saw for the first time that their cycling use was noteworthy. This spurred attention to protect its viability; cycling was eyed to spur tourism. The city created the bicycle first planning office in all of Italy and cobbled together the country’s first bicycle plan. Subsequent actions followed suit. Flat terrain, mild winters, and 15,000 university students help to support bicycling’s prowess. Cherished vintage bikes are now everywhere[2].

Interestingly, the residential density is among the lowest of Italy’s 50 principal cities[3], only 335 persons/km2. The commune spans a relatively large area (amassing only 134,000 population), and connects the consolidated urban area to many smaller towns (approximately 6 to 8 km) outside of town (home to roughly 35,000 of the population). Still, 70 percent of all trips are within 5 km. Seven radial roads to these smaller towns comprise the bulk of the bicycle planning in the form of separated bicycle paths. Add these facilities to the 9 km perimeter recreational path surrounding the coveted Renaissance city wall[4], and you start to approximate the 90 km of total separated cycling paths.

The city’s “bicycling as workhorse” tradition fails to shine in its infrastructure. There is enough of it, but cycling facilities are far from exceptional; their condition is weathered and fragile. Neighboring towns actually have more cycling infrastructure per capita[5]. Bike-sharing is small[6]. But owing to tradition, residents of Ferrara use their facilities more. The city installed a handful of counters along the radial routes to further document cycling’s use and celebrate its use to the public. Infrastructure priorities now lie in making the network safer, shortening key routes (via off-street paths), and addressing deteriorating sections.

Here’s a video of the cycling counter on March 6, showing that there are now 500 and 501 cyclists passing through this corridor by 9 am on this day.

The relative cycling attractiveness of this town within its Renaissance walls, where ironically, cycling facilities all but vanish (less than 15 km). Aggressive traffic calming takes over. The entire historic city works like one large woonerf[7]. Public officials are proud of recent achievements to have passed a speed limit restriction of 30 km/hr for key roads within the core—an initiative they hope to expand to all roads. Most streets are open to all modes, but the city has its eyes on subsiding car presence on the few streets where cars dominate.

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Most of the city center focuses like a giant woonerf

The real “planning” story here lies in a smaller zone of the historical center where trajectories were set in the 1970’s. Car restrictions are severe for a good chunk of this area. Only those who live within the core are allowed; eight cameras track violators. Parking permits are capped at one per household. While traffic limited zones are now common among many cities in Italy, the relative magnitude and character of the one in Ferrara stand out. Ferrara’s zone is the largest in all of Italy (9.81 meters2/habitant), outside of two outlier towns[8]. There are 82 km of streets and more than 1/4 of them are traffic limited. And, in contrast to the larger city 50 km down the road, Bologna, Ferrara bans motorcycles from their traffic restricted area. Both distinguishing elements further the tranquil nature that this town holds dear.

Notwithstanding Ferrara’s deep cycling culture, tensions exist. Residents pine for easier access to streets. Families pine for more than their single parking permit. Even here, shop owners pine for auto access for their customers. Amidst active discussions to further expand the traffic limited zone, several voices seek otherwise. Transit, which carries a mere 5% of trips, is expensive; it has proved difficult to recruit new users. The 28% mode split for cycling appears stable, for now. However, Ferrara’s residents are among the most elderly in all of Italy. It is not uncommon to witness elderly ladies incapable of cycling but who still use the bike as a support for waling and carrying groceries. As populations die off, so do traditions. The city has apparently adopted as one of primary aims to protect its adopted signature element—the bicycle—as well as the traditional culture of the ferraresi that was instrumental in promoting this city into its current status.

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Parking at the train station

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Separated cycling facilities along the radial roads are present, though not necessarily exceptional.

Thanks much to Gianni Stefanati and Michele Ferrari of the AMI Ferrara/Bicycle Office (telephone interview on March 19, 2013) and Monica Zanarini and Fulvio Rossi (physical interview on March 6) from the city of Ferrara who provided valuable perspectives; Monica further provided a mini-field tour of key aspects. Vera Busutti, a former student and practicing landscape architect within the region, provided additional perspectives. 


[1] The town with the highest rate of cycling in Italy is actually Bolzano (~30% mode split), a relatively large city in the Alto-Adige region in Northern Italy that was chipped away from Austria in 1919 by the Allies as a reward to the Italians for fighting the Germans. Most residents here consider themselves to be of German stock. German is the default language and ale the modus operandi. For larger geographies, however, the Veneto region to the north also prides itself with high levels of cycling.

[2] Testimony to vintage bikes, see: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2011/11/ferraras-vintage-bicycle-fleet.html

[3] Euerombility and Ministero dell-Ambiente (2012). La Mobilita Sostenibile in Italia: Indagine sulle principali 50 citta.

[4] Ferrara—along with the commune of Lucca in Toscana—boasts the best preserved Renaissance walls in all of Italy.

[5] Other cities in the region have more cycling paths. Ferrara has 8.95 km of paths /10,000 population; Regio Emilia has 10.26; Modena has 9.1+

[6] There are actually two bikesharing systems in town: (1) a “closed-system” with 15 stations for those “in the know” (provide a few bikes for those returning bikes to the same location), and (2) an “open system,” with only 5 locations and 70 bikes in town, geared moreso to visitors. The later system uses a pass that combines with the train and is transferable to several other systems within the Emilia Rogmana region.

[7] Reflecting on the historic core functioning as a large woonerf, see: http://urbancurrent.org/2012/11/19/in-ferrara-a-historical-focus-on-bicycling/

[8] The two towns in Italy with the largest traffic limited zone/habitants are: (1) Aosta—a town of only 34K close to Mt. Blanc in the north has 12.23 m2/habitant, and (2) Florence—a tourism rich town with extreme pedestrian activity, has 11.50 m2/habitant.

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2 Responses to Success is not IN the Water; it is BECAUSE of it? Bicycling in Ferrara (Italy)

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell March 21, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    I wonder if those people wanting more parking permits for their homes and businesses wanting more parking for customers have thought much about the consequences—a gob more car traffic, fewer people walking, more unappealing and dangerous to walk or bicycle, more pollution. Would living there become less desirable? Home values decline? Fewer people wanting to shop in a higher traffic place?

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    We should get a bicycle counter for the Greenway or the LRT trail. How much do they cost? It would be very cool.

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