Milan Considers Paying Residents to Bike to Work

The scheme is aimed at reducing Milan’s alarming levels of air pollution.

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When Milan and other parts of Italy recorded dangerously high levels of pollution last year, the government announced the establishment of a a €35m (USD $38m) fund for sustainable mobility solutions. Over the course of the next few weeks, municipal authorities across the European nation will begin competing for the cash. As the Guardian reports, Milan’s councillor for mobility, Pierfrancesco Maran, knows what he would do with his share of the pot.

“Reimburse those who go to work by bike; a project similar to the one in France,” Maran told the Guardian. Under the French system trialled in 2014, employees were paid 25 cents per kilometre they pedalled to work. A similar scheme was enacted last year in the Italian town of Massarosa, where around 50 people are currently participating in the trial. While Milan’s scheme would likely be much larger, Maran’s office has suggested using an app to keep track of participants’ rates of cycling. “The software exists; it’s not 100% flawless but no one’s thinking of giving large sums,” he explained.

While Maran supports the groundswell of movement already underway to make Milan more cycle-friendly, he believes more could be done. His office has sought out assistance from Milan’s Polytechnic University to work out the details of how the cycling cash incentive could function. The institute’s mobility manager, Eleonora Perotto, suggested a monitoring scheme which would check the participant’s travel speed to ensure they’re really cycling to work, but acknowledges this system would be made unreliable by the city’s heavy traffic. Perotto also admits that, while she’s supportive of the scheme to promote cycling, she herself doesn’t cycle because of the distance and difficulty of the route.

This highlights a fundamental issue with the scheme. While it seems like a good idea in theory, paying a number of individuals small sums of money to bike to work in dangerous or unappealing conditions will likely be less successful than simply using that money to make cycling safer and more appealing for everyone. The streets of Milan, like those in most Italian cities, are clogged with cars and mopeds and characterized by a somewhat haphazard driving style. There are few bike lanes and even fewer protected ones. It isn’t exactly inviting for those who may be hesitant to bike for safety reasons.

And those who are hesitant represent a large amount of the population. A US study based out of Portland, Oregon found that 60% of Portland residents are “Interested but Concerned” about biking to work. It’s a reality that Ralph Buehler, an associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech in the United States, believes would stand in the way of the success of any cash incentive scheme to increase cycling. “If you don’t provide a safe cycling environment, you will only get a very small group of people,” Buehler told the Guardian. “Just paying people alone will not have that much of an effect, because you don’t get to that part of the population which are ‘enthusiastic but concerned’.”

Similarly, asking people to get out there and cycle in a city suffering from extremely poor air quality is a little bit ridiculous. Milan did ban all traffic for a short period in December and reduce the price of public transport to try to deal with the pollution, but the issue persists. Any meaningful attempt to cut down on emissions by promoting cycling would be much more effective if enacted alongside a scheme to reduce driving as well.

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