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Bolzano, Italy

11 February, 2013 0 comments



Bolzano, Italy: Welcome to the City of Bikes

Paris is the City of Lights, New York Never Sleeps, LA is Home of the Stars – Italy’s Bolzano is the City of Bikes. This is no exaggeration: In a city of 104,000 people, 80,000 trips by bicycle are taken every single day along their 50 km of color-coded bike routes. During my brief stay in this biking Mecca I learned about the history of Bolzano and how their sustainably mobile biking infrastructure has developed.

The first thing you need to know about Bolzano, Italy, is that it has two names: Bolzano in Italian, and Bozen in German. Bolzano is the primary city of the curiously bi-cultural northern Italian region known as Sudtirol. Austria controlled the southern Alpen area from the 14th century through World War I, after which Italy was awarded the region and Austria stripped of it. Bolzano rests below the Dolomite Mountains and along Italy’s incredible network of bicycle paths known as the Pista Ciclabile. The city boasts a renowned 20 km bike route connecting medieval Castles Mareccio and Roncolo. Mussolini forced Italian architecture and education on the region, but Austrian culture still thrives: Austrian food, language and aesthetics exist alongside the Italian in oddly harmonious fashion.

The third strongest culture, however, is clearly that of the bicycle. I arrived to a small city filled to the brim with bikes of every shape, size, color and utility. Disoriented from a 100 km ride that day in the brutal Italian summer heat, I cruised into town through the incredible network of interlocking, color-coded bike paths elegantly swerving under roads and over rivers, to arrive at the heart of Bolzano. Instead of angry older Italians screaming at me with clenched fists after near-misses, what few cars were on the road politely gave me the right of way, and even pedestrians were seemingly in awe of my trailer rig.

Bikes were piled up everywhere with no locks, no one looking after them. I found my way to the local swimming pool to escape the oppressive heat and just leaned my bike up against a stack of 50 bikes and left all of my worldly possessions open, unlocked in plan site. The culture of trust and respect for each other’s bikes was palpable. And perhaps it’s not a culture of trust as much as it is totally unremitting normalcy. Bikes are so infused into Bolzano’s culture that taking another’s bike is just so far outside of expected behavior, it’s not even considered. How fortunate.

Bolzano was the first city in Italy to install what they call a “bicycle barometer”, a counting machine that allows municipal authorities to count the number of bike trips taken per day, since the barometer’s installment, and relative to other types of travel like motorbike and car. Since the installment of the barometer, around 30% of all transportation trips in the city have been taken by bike.

This wasn’t an accident, however. In 1999, the Ökoinstitut Südtirol/Alto Adige was charged by Bolzano’s city government to develop and implement a comprehensive system for bike mobility designed to combat a number of problems faced by the small community, but familiar to most: traffic congestion, noise, pollution, and health problems from heavy car use. The bicycle was their solution. Ökoinstitut Südtirol/Alto Adige concluded that bikes are, “…flexible, fast, convivial, sportive, healthy, ecological and economical.” Additionally, they’re silent, consume little energy, causes no pollution, no insurance necessary, and keep people fit. Amen.

And so Bolzano embarked upon a campaign to dramatically change the way their citizens moved themselves around the city. They determined a number of initiatives were to take place. First, a coherent bike network was to be built where all citizens and tourists would be able to ride together with confidence and safety. Routes were divided into principal, secondary and tertiary grids to allow greater and unimpeded flows of cyclist traffic to popular destinations, like the center of town.

Designers recognized that it’s a hassle for cyclists to slow down for lights and impediments. Austrian scientists concluded that each traffic stop requires the same amount of effort as 150 meters of cycling. Thus, Bolzano’s network was designed to keep cyclists riding at an average speed of at least 10 km/h.

Because cyclists are more directly impacted by accidents, Bolzano’s designers determined that cyclists and fast cars and motorbikes should be completely separated. Instead of reducing where cyclists could go, they categorically reduced motorized traffic speeds to 30 km/h and under. Reduced speeds also serve to reduce noise and pollution. Additional separated bike lines were constructed that are specially designed to have no intersections with other traffic, which is where the majority of accidents take place. When cycling routes must cross intersections, visibility areas of 55-70 meters were built to guarantee safe crossing.

Cycling can be fast and safe, but if it’s not comfortable and attractive, the average citizen will not use their bicycle every day. Bolzano recognized this was a crucial element and developed a series of initiatives to increase the comfort and attractiveness of cycling for average riders. Pot holes and uneven pavement are uncomfortable and dangerous for cyclists. Bolzano repaved roads and provided systems to clean and maintain bike lanes year round. Safety for cyclists riding at night, especially women, was taken into consideration when planning routes. Lighting was installed and mechanisms of “social safety” incorporated. Extensive signage was developed to help cyclists find their way around. Principal bike lanes were color coded, like subway lines, for maximum ease. A municipal bike rental system was developed along with an extensive marketing campaign to entice riders.

The impact on Bolzano is dramatic. The number of cyclists 0-24 has doubled since implementation. At least 25% of all transportation in the city is by bike. Bike trips in winter have increased significantly. Accidents are rare. The air is clear and clean. And most importantly, everyone rides bikes: old and young, men and women, Italian or Austrian, tourists and lifelong Bolzano residents. It’s a beautiful place. 

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