How Milan is reinventing itself as a cycling city


On paper, Milan is a cyclist’s dream. Flatter than a margherita pizza, with wide, well-paved roads, its compact center stretches only 15 km from top to bottom. In a few minutes, two wheels will take you from the city’s spectacular Gothic Duomo to the bar-lined canals of the Navigli district. The same goes for the other great prints of Milan: the ethereal of Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper; masterpieces from the Pinacoteca di Brera; the imposing carcass of the Sforza castle. By bike, none is more than 30 minutes away.

There is only one problem: the cars. They’re too many. Although more than half of the city’s population uses public transport to get around, Milan has one of the highest motorization rates in Europe. Roads, on the whole, were designed for their use. But that is all starting to change.

When Covid hit Italy hard in early 2020, the nationwide lockdown had an unintended side effect in Milan. Traffic has been reduced by almost 75% – and Milan’s infamous smog has also temporarily disappeared.

With cleaner air, clarity of thought followed. During that initial lockdown and the months that followed, planners embarked on a period of ambitious change: they redesigned large parts of the city’s street plan in favor of bicycles, not cars.

“We were working on a blank page, which never happens for an urban planner,” explains Demetrio Scopelliti, director of urban planning and public space design at AMAT, the mobility agency in Milan. “We used the crisis to accelerate and foster a change that was already planned but needed to be pushed. “

These plans became known as “Strade Aperte” (Open Roads), a project to convert some of Milan’s busiest streets into bicycle-friendly routes, encourage cycling through the city and fight against the Milan pollution problem. Over the past year, 35 km of new cycle paths have been created across the city, including an additional 25 km of “cycle” zones, such as safer 30 km speed limit zones for cars.

A cyclist and a pedestrian pass the Duomo in Milan

(Joey Tyson)

So far, the plan has been a huge success. Instead of turning to their cars as an alternative to public transport, the Milanese came to life on two wheels. In the spring of this year, bicycles made up 25 percent of all vehicles on Corso Buenos Aires, one of Milan’s busiest roads – a huge proportion, according to Demetrio.

The change has not escaped the people of Milan. “In some areas it’s like Amsterdam or Copenhagen – a traffic jam of cyclists,” says Marco Mazzei, cycling enthusiast, activist and journalist.

Marco has been heavily involved in the Milanese cycling scene for years, co-hosting the city’s first cycling festival, Milano Bike City, in 2018. He is also a distinguished member of the Milan Cycling Coalition, a group of companies and organizations working to make Milan bike-friendly. Cycling has never been so popular in Milan today, according to Marco.

In some areas it’s like Amsterdam or Copenhagen – a traffic jam of cyclists

As a result, cycle tourism – although mostly local due to travel restrictions – begins to expand. Since 2018, Marco has been working on his own cycling project: AbbracciaMI (roughly translated as “cuddle me”), a 70 km route that circles the outskirts of Milan, passing through the city’s lesser-known neighborhoods, parks and monuments. So far, the route is available as GPS maps, but Marco hopes to launch an app by the end of 2021.

Over the past year, interest in AbbracciaMI has skyrocketed. Every day, Marco receives new requests for tours, group rides and itineraries from people wishing to discover Milan on two wheels. When foreign travelers do eventually return this summer, Marco hopes the popularity of the project will benefit them as well.

“The idea, before Covid, was to show tourists coming to Milan that the city is not just the city center, Brera and Navigli,” he explains. “There are a lot of small towns around the big city. We want them to know Baggio, Barona, Chiaravalle and the other parts of the city – there are a lot of cool places!

Bike rides along the canal in the Navigli district

(Joey Tyson)

Elsewhere in the city, others also want to strengthen Milan’s cycling profile. South of the city, A Ritmo D’Aque, a new app launched last year, invites cyclists to discover the bucolic hinterland of southwest Milan. The app plots 14 routes that run along the city’s ancient canal system, encouraging cyclists to seek out small Italian towns and discover hidden agriturismos. Start-up Smile and bike and East River offer similar tours in central and northern Milan.

As Milan emerges from the pandemic, cycling is expected to play an important role in the city’s future for residents and tourists. Plans are in place to finally host the city’s very first cycle tourism show (the original had to be postponed due to Covid). Meanwhile, finishes are being made to a long-distance path that will connect Milan to the VenTo, a 679 km cycle path stretching from Venice to Turin.

A cyclist walks past a fountain at Parco Sempione

(Joey Tyson)

For Demetrio, the livability of the city always comes first. But with cities that are liveable and attractive, tourism is never far behind. Either way, it’s clear that Milan’s cycling revolution is just beginning, with plans for more cycling infrastructure high on the agenda.

“Sixty kilometers of cycle paths in one year have been a big effort on the part of the city,” he says. “But it’s something that can be increased year by year and accelerated in the future to really achieve the vision that we have.”


About Juana Jackson

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