Bologna’s Cycling Struggles and the Potential to Export Its Intimacy

The 2014 EU BICI series includes: Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), Zurich (Switzerland), and Cambridge (U.K.).

My adopted home-town for the past year, Bologna, has essential ingredients for a world-class cycling success story; it has:

  • a big university[1],
  • flat topography[2],
  • good enough cycling weather for ~9 months of the year[3],
  • the right size for most everything to be within a few kilometers[4],
  • the highest average price for parking in all of Italy[5], and
  • a tradition of progressive politics.

Despite these assets, Bologna fails to garner more than a 10% cycling mode share. It is hardly a success story and dissecting its cycling DNA provides interesting takeways.

At least three physical features to the city inhibit Bologna’s stardom: (1) it lacks a signature river, park, or other “cycling spine” to connect to[6]; (2) the presence of a highly trafficked 4-6 lane road around the perimeter of the historic center (the Viali) forms a difficult-to-penetrate barrier[7], and (3) the porticoes, while providing highly valued pedestrian space, make most streets even more cramped.5 modes

The last point deserves more elaboration. Lining almost 50 km of streets around town are the signature three meter-wide porticoes. Their origin stems from a 1288 ordinance intended to guard against increasing privatization of space and ensure public use. All building construction, even to this day in most areas, is mandated to provide for a portico high enough for man to pass on horseback[8]. The result is an unparalleled pedestrian infrastructure for a medieval city, providing continuity, protection from cars, and shelter from the elements. Outside of the secondary smoke and the surrounding noise that is trapped by the ceilinged Portici—together with the pet feces which never gets washed away by the rain—the dedicated space of the Portici are a valued haven for pedestrians. But for most streets in the city, the Portici make it that much more difficult to find any space for other modes, much less, cycling.

Bologna’s cycling environment also suffers because the city serves as the economic center for middle-north Italy, yielding more activity, people, and commuters (relative to neighboring cities). I heard concerns of bike theft—even among pieces of junk—moreso than in any other city. The increased activity means more cars and more buses (often of the accordion variety), all who compete for space in already cramped streets. A zona traffico limitato (ZTL) exists here like it does in all Italian cities, but it functions differently and relatively poorly. The ZTL covers 80% of the historic center (3.2 km2) and has restrictions from 7 am until 8 pm[9], but there are too many exceptions. There are supposedly 60,000 cars that are “authorized” or have otherwise bought their way in[10]. Taxis and motorcycles are exempt and run amuck everywhere. These accommodations, I have been told, are needed to ensure economic vitality.

Cycling facilities here, in general, exhibit similar character as those I have seen in most Italian cities. They are tired; sketched where the city can barely find room, and suffer in quality. People are quick to point out a primary bike spine in town, connecting neighborhoods from east to west. It is a meandering stripe that bobs and weaves, literally at right angles between newsstands and trees. It sometimes pinches the rider down to mere inches. I presume it was designed by a public works employee after too much limoncello. I rode it two times looking for it before I was told that I was on indeed on “the facility.” Owing to all of the above, there appears to be even less room here to squeeze in cycling here than in other cities. The need to keep motorized traffic flowing on limited street space is the primary reason cycling is banned on the streets after a significant snowfall.

[above: The 3+ minute of the good and the bad of cycling around Bologna]

There were 60 km of bike “facilities” a decade ago—a length realistically expected to realistically double next year. But what is really considered a bike facility here is open for debate. The newer facilities are better, though still substandard relative to universal norms, and the city leverages creative use of bus facilities which double as bike lanes when needed. I often found myself asking, “is a poor cycling facility better than no cycling facility at all?”

It’s easy to claim that prized cycling facilities need higher quality and better recognition here. Outside some of the key trafficked areas, smaller streets and alleys could be demarcated as key cycling routes via paint and planters. The city made a bold move in May 2012 to shut down the three main streets and areas in the center to all motorized vehicles every weekend, from Friday evening through Sunday evening. The city’s character transforms itself for the better because otherwise because there is less than 1 km of restricted pedestrian only space in all the city[11]. The ZTL clearly needs to flex its muscle more here. Furthermore, the city needs to desperately join the larger bike-sharing (and larger mobility) enhancements prevalent in the surrounding towns[12]. The city has apparently been holding out on the bike-sharing portion, having launched their own decrepit system a few years ago.

Notwithstanding all of this, the cycling environment here is safe, respectful, and surprisingly enjoyable. It has a magical air about it. I have written previously about how I feel safer for my 8 year old son riding his bike here in Bologna than anywhere in the United States. A fundamental tenet of this stems from the culture of sharing that is engendered here—particularly in Bologna with the limited right of way in the streets[13]. Furthermore, speeds are low enough in most corridors that drivers are able to stop on a dime. Bikes are slower; cars are slower. Near misses are common and surprisingly non-threatening—an ounce of which is a good thing, allowing a culture of respect among modes. The street space, it appears, is owned by no mode in particular and is willingly shared. When 60 million residents live in an area slightly larger than Arizona, people learn how to successfully share space[14].

[above: near misses are common and surprisingly non-threatening, even for an 8 year old human subject, my son].

It is acknowledged that the rest of the world has two things to learn from Italian culture: (1) attention to the aesthetic quality of objects, and (2) quality of the food[15]. Having lived here for a year—and looking at things from a transport perspective—I contend there is a third: the ability to share space. This is a valuable characteristic to learn from as transport systems evolve over the next years, particularly with automated vehicles infusing the streets and needing to share with bicycling.

Thanks to Alessandro Rigolon, Bart Drakulich, Dora Ramazzotti, Federico Rupi, and Silvia Bernardi who provided information or perspectives contained within this post.

[1] The University of Bologna is the oldest in Europe and the largest in Italy, claiming more than 100,000 students when classes are in session.

[2] Admittedly, there might be a 2 to 3 % gradient from North to South across town; and immediately outside into the Apennines hills, there are steep ascents. But, the majority of the city is flat.

[3] July and August are clearly to hot; and rain is often an issue for periods in November and April. But this still leaves at least more than 250 days per year of attractive cycling weather.

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

[6] This is a valuable and often underestimated feature of most other cities among the EU BICI, including Seville, Cambridge, Berlin, and Ferrara (and include Minneapolis, Portland, and Boulder for that matter).

[7] The Viali is particularly problematic along the south part of town as there is not a formal “tangenziale” (ring highway) here owing to opposition from some of the wealthier areas of town andrd the presence of hills; consequently, the Viali here is used as a major traffic thoroughfare.

[8] …a mandate that apparently was not met in some poorer areas.

[9]Starting in 2005, the system has been successfully monitored by 10 cameras, generating many fines for violators.


[11] Admittedly, a pedestrian free-for-all presents other cycling challenges, but a stricter ZTL is a move in the right direction.

[12] MiMuovo is an intermodal network (railway, bus, P&R and other services) via an integrated payment system in collaboration with Regione Emilia Romagna.

[13] This concept of sharing was also identified by Luigi explaining to Marco some of the peculiarities of Italian culture (in the 2005 John Grisham novel, The Broker, also set in Bologna), “Space is shared…not protected. Tables are shared, the air evidently is shared because smoking bothers no one. Cars, houses, buses, apartments, cafes—so many important aspects of life are smaller, thus more cramped, thus more willingly shared. It’s not offensive to go nose to nose with an acquaintance during routine conversation because no space is being violated. Talk with your hand, hug, embrace, even kiss at times. Even for a friendly people, such familiarity was difficult for Americans to understand.”

[14] These are the approximate statistics for Italy as a whole.

[15] These two dimensions, admittedly, are the expression of Oscar Farinetti, the founder of Eatily. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.


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    […] is the next entry in the EU BICI series which includes: Seville (Spain), Bologna, Ferrara (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), Zurich (Switzerland), […]

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