Italy has been one of the worst-hit countries by the coronavirus outbreak, specifically its northern regions.
But now, as cases finally start declining, cities are looking at the day after the lockdown is lifted – with Milan taking the first steps in a sustainable direction.
The northern city has just announced an ambitious plan to transform 35km (22 miles) of streets over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
The plan, called Strade Aperte and presented this week by the city’s major, includes low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 30kph (20mph) speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets, all in the hopes of encouraging people to avoid using their cars.
“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,” Marco Granelli, a deputy mayor of Milan, said. “Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before.”
Small but dense, Milan is 15 kilometers from end to end and houses 1.4 million inhabitants, 55% of whom use public transport to get to work. The average commute is less than 4 kilometers, which means switching from cars to active modes of travel is possible for most residents.
Milan’s new plan is set to begin in May, installing a new cycle lane and expanded pavements on one of the city’s most important shopping streets, the Corso Buenos Aires. The remainder of the work will be completed by the end of the summer, officials estimate.
Traffic congestion has dropped nationwide by 30-75%, and air pollution with it, all thanks to the lockdown. Milan officials hope to avoid a resurgence in the use of cars as residents return to work looking to avoid busy public transport.
“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,” said Granelli.
While Milan has taken the first step, other cities could follow in the same direction. Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation commissioner for New York City and now advising other cities, said Milan’s innovative approach could end up being a roadmap for others.
“A lot of cities and even countries have been defined by how they’ve responded to historical forces, whether it’s political, social, or physical reconstruction,” she told The Guardian. “The Milan plan is so important is because it lays out a good playbook for how you can reset your cities now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”