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How the COVID-19 crisis inspired this major Italian city to transform its polluted streets – for good

How the COVID-19 crisis inspired this major Italian city to transform its polluted streets – for good

  • Milan wants to avoid going back to its polluted ways when the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted.
  • The city is planning to build 35km of new cycle routes and to give pedestrians more space by widening pavements.
  • Even the metro will get new measures to allow passengers to practise social distancing.
  • Work on this ambitious transformation could start as early as May.

Politicians are fond of talking about the new normal in a world changed by coronavirus. But Milan is actively looking beyond the end of lockdown with plans for a much cleaner city.

The city’s councilor for mobility, Marco Granelli, says the Strade Aperte (Open Streets) scheme will reduce pollution and allow cyclists and pedestrians to move freely through the often choked city. Last year, Italy’s environmental regulator named Milan as the nation’s sixth most polluted city.

Granelli says the lockdown in Milan, the capital of Lombardy – the province worst hit by Italy’s COVID-19 epidemic – is a chance to look to the future and plan a city where people can enjoy living and working free from traffic pollution.

He also believes the scheme will help restart the city’s local economy.

“We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops,” Granelli told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

“Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before. We think we have to reimagine Milan in the new situation.

“We have to get ready; that’s why it’s so important to defend even a part of the economy, to support bars, artisans and restaurants. When it is over, the cities that still have this kind of economy will have an advantage, and Milan wants to be in that category.”

The coronavirus lockdown has transformed Milan into a bike- and pedestrian-friendly city.
Image: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Freedom to cycle and walk

The Strade Aperte plan is to create 35 kilometres of new cycle routes across the city, widen pavements for pedestrians and reduce parking spaces to deter drivers from entering the city centre. And Granelli told Radio Lombardy that work could start as soon as next month.

He also announced plans to make the city’s metro system suitable for social distancing, by marking out spaces in subway cars and stations that must be left empty, even in rush hour.

In January, the city’s population had hit a 30-year high. Mayor Beppe Sala said that Brexit was a factor, with Londoners moving there for work and Italians returning home.

Regarded as Italy’s commercial powerhouse, central Milan is a compact city of 1.4 million people. Before the coronavirus lockdown an almost equal number (1.37 million) used the city’s metro every day, although that figure included commuters from outside the city.

The average commute in Milan and Lombardy is just under 8km, according to the Global Public Transport Report 2019. Only 2% of people commute daily by scooter or bicycle. The city already has a congestion charge zone which also bans the most polluting vehicles from the centre.

Since the coronavirus lockdown started, public transport use in Milan and the Lombardy region has declined by over 88%.

The city’s main shopping street, Corso Buenos Aires, is earmarked to be the first to receive the new traffic reduction measures, with work due to start there at the beginning of May. Officials say the remainder of the work will be completed by the end of the summer.

Written by Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content, World Economic Forum

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

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