Setting the record straight on Milan

Home to iconic brands such as Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini — plus Fiat, the company that put the country on wheels, Italy has a deep love affair with cars.

The Autostrada dei Laghi, built in 1924 to connect the city of Milan with Como, Varese and Lake Maggiore, was either the first or one of the very first motorways in the world.


Milan is home to 1.4 million people and 700,000 cars — considerably more, per capita, than in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Paris or Stockholm.

Parking space is insufficient. The guesstimate is that there may be as many as 100,000 illegaly parked cars in the city, for example on sidewalks. It’s rather ugly — Google it!

Milan suffers from serious air pollution problems. Roberto Formigoni, the conservative governor of Lombardy from 1995 to 2013, believed there was nothing to worry about. From 2002 and for a decade, he said the solution would be hydrogen-powered cars.

Progressives to the rescue

Progressives have been ruling Milan since 2011. During Giuliano Pisapia‘s tenure, they oddly decided that the solution to the city’s problems of too many cars, heavy traffic, pollution and the occupation and destruction of public space was to be found in the latest technological miracle solution that comes with a shiny app, car sharing.

Milan currently sports 4 large car-sharing schemes: Mercedes-Benz-owned Car2go and BMW-owned DriveNow, which are now being rolled into ShareNow; and two local players: Enjoy, owned by Eni, Italy’s private-public petrol company and the largest company in the country, and startup Sharengo, the only one of the four that runs electric vehicles.

Incredible as it may seem, towards the end of Giuliano Pisapia’s tenure, the city of Milan de facto legalised illegal parking by drawing parking lines on sidewalks. Unsurprisingly, in 2016 the number of cars in Milan increased for the first time in 15 years.

Here comes Giuseppe Sala

In 2016 Giuseppe Sala, formerly general manager of the city of Milan under conservative mayor Letizia Moratti in 2009-2011, ran for mayor — this time as a progressive, and won. Sala ran on a platform of 32 points, the last one being the promise of A Pet-friendly City. The very first point of his programme, page 25, was A Great Plan for Sustainable Mobility.

Instead of promising to build a certain number of kms of bike lanes like his predecessors, Sala assured the milanese that daily movements by bicycle would jump from 6% to 20%. People in charge of transportation at City Hall immediately told him it was impossible, but he didn’t care. It sounded like a good promise to make, and that was all that mattered.

Four years into his tenure, how are we doing? See page 4: Apparently, not very well.

Milan in the times of Covid-19

Milan’s region, Lombardy, has been the worst-hit in Europe. Schools were shut down on February 23 in six regions in Northern Italy, including Lombardy and the city of Milan. A total lockdown was imposed on Milan by the national government starting March 8. Did City Hall work on pop-up bicycle lanes in the meantime? Of course not.

But when they saw that cities like Bogotà, Berlin and Oakland were being praised for their efforts to put more people on bicycles, they decided to jump on the bandwagon. The city government created a new plan called Strade Aperte, or Open Streets; they promised to create 35 kms 22.7 kms of unprotected bike lanes, and put their spin doctors to work.

How does a pandemic spread? What about false or vastly exaggerated news?

The Guardian took the bait and broke the news, followed by The Irish Times and The Independent. The story was too good to pass. Or to check. Greta and Janette Sadik-Khan retweeted The Guardian and the story crossed the Atlantic: CityLab, The Atlantic, and Fast Company mistook Milan for the new Amsterdam. Last came the BBC, on April 30.

Enter Gisela from Mexico City

Gisela Méndez, an architect and urbanist from Mexico City, was unimpressed.

She discovered that in February 2019 mobility manager Marco Granelli had promised 85 kms of new bike lanes within 2 years, and that well into 2020 he had nothing to show for it. Disappointed, she published a post aptly titled El día que Milán engañó a todo el activismo ciclista mundial, or The day that Milan misled the whole world’s cycling activists.

Milan’s sustainable urban mobility plan, approved in late 2018, called for a revolution: a whole network of new bikes lanes, in colours light blue, red and purple.

Compare it to what we are getting — and hold the prosecco for another day!

The future is cars, cars and yet more cars!

On April 22, the day after the article from The Guardian, the city of Milan put its congestion charge on hold. The same applies to the (formerly) restricted driving zones (ZTL).

While mayor Anne Hidalgo said that she would not let cars invade Paris after the lockdown, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala confirmed the suspension of the congestion charge and said that he is waiting for the next technological miracle, electric cars.

Hydrogen-powered cars, car sharing, electric cars. Cars, cars and yet more cars!

I’m sorry you were tricked, but we’d love to welcome you to Milan! Come for fashion and shopping, for design and food, for Inter and Milan, for art, more art and for the opera.

If you like cars, come for Alfa Romeo. If you like bicycles, head to Amsterdam.

Image Credits:

Autostrada dei Laghi

Cityscape with smog

Enjoy and Car2go

Cycling modal share

Greta retweets

2018 vs. 2020

On top of the Duomo