The Fastest Path To Sustainable Cities: A Very Low Speed Limit
Bologna is the first major Italian city to join the city30 initiative, taking on a model that limits the speed of cars in cities to 30 kilometers-per-hour (18.6 mph) and aims to return road space to pedestrians and cyclists.
BOLOGNA — City30, a program that lowers the speed limit of major cities to 30 kilometers an hour (18.6 mph), has several goals: it aims to increase road safety, promote sustainable mobility through the reduction of pollution and emissions and to advance the local economy. The new model has already taken hold in various cities around the world, and has now arrived in Italy as well.
Starting in June, Bologna became the first major Italian city to set its speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour. The first Italian city to do so was Cesena, which led the way in 1998, and was followed in 2021 by Olbia.
To become a city30, however, more has to be done than just lowering the speed limit. Rather, it is a broader and more complex intervention, that is both infrastructural and cultural. The urban environment must be redeveloped with the aim of returning public road space to pedestrians and cyclists.
“In Italy, we still consider the road to be solely the realm of the car," says urban planner Matteo Dondè, who specializes in cycling planning, traffic calming and the redevelopment of public spaces. “It is above all a cultural problem: we are the only country where the pedestrian thanks the motorist for stopping at the pedestrian crossing... and if you respect the speed limit you are seen as a loser.”
The dangers of the road
Dondè explains that, for decades, people have been thinking about solutions. “In the United Kingdom, the concept of the living street was already theorized in the 1970s, to give the road back to the people. In Paris five years ago, the (boulevard along the Seine River) was closed to traffic. At first, there was great controversy. Now, it has become the new city square. In Florence, on the other hand, the Lungarno, one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world, is still invaded by cars."
In Italy every year as many people as there are inhabitants of Padua and Trieste are injured in the streets.
The street is 80% of the public space of our cities. Every year in Italy, the equivalent of the population of Padua and Trieste are injured in the streets. In 2021, Istat recorded more than 200,000 injured and 2,875 dead as a result of road collisions. More than half of the deaths in the city are due to speeding, distracted driving and failure to yield to pedestrians at crossings.
Data published by the European Commission shows that in 2022, Italy saw an increase in road accident victims, up 9% compared to the previous year, when mobility was still partially reduced due to the pandemic. This compares to an average growth of 3% in the EU over the same period.
In Italy, 53 people per 1 million inhabitants have lost their lives as a result of road collisions, compared to the European average of 46. That figure places Italy eighth in terms of the number of victims per capita after Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Portugal, Latvia, Greece and Hungary.
In the first four months of 2023 alone, 135 pedestrians were hit, more than one a day. Studies show that the main deterrent to the use of bicycles (and to pedestrian mobility) in the city is the lack of safety.
In fact, the bicycle trade is decreasing. In 2021, just under two million bicycles were sold in Italy, 30,000 less than the previous year. At the same time, our motorization rate remains among the highest in Europe. There are almost 40 million cars in circulation, or 67 for every 100 inhabitants, which is nine more than Germany, 10 more than France and 15 more than Spain. Rome is the second city in the world for hours lost in traffic, after Bogotà, Colombia, and Milan is seventh.
What the future holds
“The need to change the language of our streets has been in discussion for years,” explains Dondè. “We have to move from the language of the car to the language of people and focus on urban greenery, make room for wider sidewalks and encourage socializing with tables and benches. It is a matter of democracy of public space, which must be distributed equally to all road users.”
There are already several cities in the world30 collective, including Grenoble, France, Helsinki, Finland, Graz, Austria, Edinburgh, Scotland and Bilbao, Spain.
In Spain, a change to the highway code which imposes the limit of 30 kilometers per hour in all urban centers in the country was implemented in 2021. In the places where it is in effect, this new model has had positive results. In Brussels, in the first six months of experimentation, collisions fell by 22% and road fatalities and noise pollution was halved. The kilometers traveled by the inhabitants in a day increased by five million. The share of cars decreased by 15%, while walking and cycling increased by five and 7% respectively, which also favored the reduction in traffic. In Edinburgh, the number of collisions fell by 40%, while the number of injuries decreased by 33% and fatalities by 23%.
The impact of this model on health was also studied for the first time in Barcelona, where data suggest that the change has led to 667 premature deaths prevented per year, an increase in life expectancy of almost 200 days on average per person and an annual savings of €1.7 billion. This is also thanks to the reduction of atmospheric pollution from nitrogen dioxide, which decreases by 24%. The most complete scientific study was conducted in London from 1986 to 2006 — the result was a halving of deaths and serious collisions, with even better numbers for children.
Following these results, in May 2021 the United Nations launched the #love30 campaign to ask politicians to lower the speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour in all cities and towns around the world. In October of the same year, a resolution of the European Parliament proposed the introduction of the limit in all European cities where there are residential areas and a high number of cyclists and pedestrians. The European Union aims to reduce road deaths and serious injuries by 50% by 2030. The goal is contained in the strategic action plan of the Commission on road safety and is part of the "Vision Zero" strategy, aimed at achieving the elimination of road fatalities by 2050.
People biking in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
The necessity of city30
In Italy, the death of former cycling champion Davide Ribellin, who was hit by a truck on Nov. 30, 2022 while cycling in the Vicenza area, accelerated the journey towards the city30.
The city30 platform, which brings together various organizations that deal with of the theme, has published a handbook of common intentions. In the following months, demonstrations, flash mobs, cycle paths and human pedestrian crossings were organized. And on May 6, the first national law proposal on city30 was launched.
“Today in the city, the norm is a speed limit of 50 kilometers per hour, with some exceptions in areas with a limit of 30,” explains Andrea Colombo, an expert in sustainable mobility and one of the authors of the bill. “We want to overturn this principle: the norm should be the limit of 30, with some exceptions of high-speed arteries where it will be possible to reach 50. And then in some residential areas or around schools it will not be possible to exceed 20.”
Additionally, tactical urban planning interventions are hypothesized to force drivers to reduce speed, and more powers are given to municipalities and the local police, while road safety and sustainable mobility education activities are also envisaged.
“The city30 is not only a technical-administrative system, but it also implies a social and cultural process,” explains Alessandra Bonfanti, responsible for the mobility of Legambiente, which is part of the city30 platform. “We need to prepare people so that they understand the change, want it and implement it. The role of civil society is fundamental and city30 will only win if it manages to actively involve citizens as well.”
This is what happened in Bologna. “Cities that take on this path must challenge an existing culture and national laws that do not exist,” explains the city councilor for mobility, Valentina Orioli. “In our country, the spheres of mobility and road safety are still considered separately. In Bologna, the first 30 zones were born between the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2019, when the urban plan for sustainable mobility was approved, we have started thinking about an entire city30. Cyclists continue to increase, and the motorization rate is among the lowest in Italy, but we have a tradition that helps us in this process.”
In 2022, the government approved the guidelines for the implementation of the “Bologna city30” plan, with an investment of over €18 million into cycling, walking, the removal of architectural barriers and road safety. But the journey had already begun many years before.
“Our first campaign on the 30 zones dates back to 2014,” says Simona Larghetti, founder of the Bologna Salvaciclisti association, and former president of the municipal council for bicycles. “Ten years ago, most people told us to go to hell; today, there is greater sensitivity. The introduction of the city30 does not represent a sudden change from white to black, but a gradual shift of perspective. Bologna remains the same; it is the point of view from which we look at it that is transformed.”
A difference of just 12 seconds
To measure how social well-being benefits from city30, the municipality has carried out a quantitative cost-benefit analysis. In Bologna, there is a network of about 600 kilometers of roads. Every day there are just under 3 million motorized journeys on private vehicles, plus 1 million on public transport and half a million pedestrians and cyclists.
What is the point of comparing 12 seconds to a person's life?
“The average delay due to the city30 was calculated at 12 seconds for each trip of each motorist,” explains Alfredo Drufuca, an expert consultant in traffic and transport planning for the municipality of Bologna. “But 12 seconds is not worth the absurd number of accidents we record on our roads. What is the point of comparing 12 seconds to a person's life?”
The costs of the city30 in Bologna have been estimated at €23.6 million per year for delays caused to private vehicles, to which €2.3 million must be added for delays in public transport. On the other hand, however, there are economic benefits: an estimated €21 million will be saved every year through the reduction in collisions, plus another €2 million for the increase in active mobility and the relative reduction in mortality, and finally €2.5 million for the reduction of traffic and the impact on the environment.
“We did the calculations very prudently. The chosen parameters tend to underestimate the benefits and overestimate the costs, so that the result obtained is not questionable,” concludes Drufuca. “Data, however, is not everything. We must realize that city30 improves the lives of citizens, and that is priceless. The car has a much greater danger than all the other tools of our daily life. We use it with great ease, without thinking that we have a weapon in our hands. In Italy, we are unjustifiably late on these issues as we have slept on our dead for too many years. The time has come to find new answers.”
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