I am extremely fortunate that I get invited to all sorts of cities to talk about the development of cycling and cycling cultures. And I am even luckier that I get to ride around these cities with some of the most passionate and enthusiastic advocates for cycling, people who believe intensely in the quality of life, the safety and the living environment of the cities where they live.
It was while I was reflecting on my first visit to Milan last week that I was reminded what an astonishingly different perspective that brings compared to a tour where I guide myself, like one of the blog’s old favourites “The unprepared tourist” from Berlin.
Because overlaying the history and architecture that everybody sees is another invisible streetscape. It’s a place of stories and legends, of battles fought and lost, of heroes and villains, where almost every street has been debated and discussed to try and get safety features, bike lanes or car free zones. And of course cyclists being cyclists the debates are sometimes almost as intense between the cyclists and their groups as they are between the cycling community and the cities or regions they live in.
I was lucky enough to ride around Milan with Francesco Baroncini and Giulia Cortesi of FIAB, the national urban cyclists’ federation of Italy. Especially Giulia, because this is her city. Born here, grew up here and volunteered for the cyclists lobby before here she moved into project management role at the national office of FIAB. She was a very knowledgeable guide about the many layers of history and the urban development patterns of Milan, which made a great tour in its own right.
But her route combined the great buildings with a personal portrait of the development of cycling in the city, which combined elements of history, frustration and humour that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I could sense how the city’s earliest efforts would have driven the advocates crazy 30 years ago. A bike lane built out of cobbles to blend in with the historic streetscape?
Or how about the astonishing bridge to nowhere, so bad the Ciclobby took the city to court? It looked innocent enough, actually a high quality segregated cycle path over a useful connecting bridge.
Until we got to the other end and discovered that it went……..well, nowhere. At the other end was a choice between a no entry sign or two steep flights of steps to the lower level. Why?
It is useless, but apparently the unofficial technique is to just illegally ride contraflow against the cars coming up the other ramp, something I am not sure I would want to try regularly faced by Italian drivers.
The next generation of facilities had many of the loves and hates that divide cyclists. Apparently the local group have been very keen on painted bike lanes as a low cost way of getting more street space, but they are erratic in their stops and starts and where there are no lanes the city the riding is not for the fainthearted.
It was also made very clear to me that I was actually seeing the city at its very best for cycling because in August most of the city is on holiday and many streets were also blocked for works on the new Metro, a natural form of traffic calming.
I got the picture, on the busier roads we were often wedged between the drivers and the uncontrolled parking plague, the lack of parking enforcement was as bad as anywhere I have ever seen – even Kiev. Rush hour must be some challenge.
And there are increasing areas of pedestrianised spaces which are lovely, but it is not entirely clear that they are actually open for cyclists.
Nobody seemed to mind, although we did get a comment when we rode through the beautifully restored Royal Galleries that link the cathedral square to la Scala opera house. (We were not alone).
However I should finish my impression of Giulia’s alternative cycling tour of Milan by bringing out three of the highlights that bring out Idonotdespair’s positive spirit.
To start with the obvious, some of the new cycling facilities are excellent. For Dutch or Danish perfectionists they are perhaps a bit narrow in places and they are certainly not always completely straight and as yet they don’t create a comprehensive network. I am sure I only got the slightest impression of the battles that have taken place for every metre of those bike lanes, every loss of parking space opposed, every shop owner insisting that their businesses would be ruined by the city.
But if the city is going to get anywhere near its ambition of growing from 7% to a 20% mode share for cycling they are going to be an essential part of the future. I really liked the route out to the South West that had a long section planted with flowering hibiscus trees, as those trees mature I imagine a lovely cool and fragrant ride.
The next one is a story I absolutely love – and I suspect it can only come from Milan, one of the world’s fashion and style capitals. Essential to all tourism or cultural visits is La Scala, arguably the most famous opera house in the world. So it’s nice to cycle there.
But of far more importance on our cycling cultural tour is the cycle lane that starts just beside the opera house. Because the city’s architectural guardians agreed to the cycle path, a victory in itself.
But only if the section beside La Scala was made from the finest marble to blend in with the piazza. So ladies and gentlemen, signore e signori, you are riding on possibly the most expensive and stylish cycle path surface you have ever seen.
And you would never know without that lovely inside knowledge provided by Giulia.
And finally a tribute to one of the local heroes who fought all those battles. The Luigi Riccardi cycle route – a long greenway beside a restored canal that runs right out of the city to the North West, ultimately connecting cycle routes all the way up to the great lakes and mountains to the north.
Whenever the history of campaigning for daily cycling in Milan, or indeed in Italy is written then Gigi will be seen as the founding father. He started in campaigning for cycling in Milan in 1986 and by the time he died in 2008 he had founded Ciclobby Milan, then FIAB at the national level. He had been involved in every campaign from individual streets in Milan up to bringing FIAB into the international level with ECF. In Milan I get the impression he was someone everybody knew and respected because he was one of the names behind all the battles I heard about.
And after he died his campaigning legacy lived on in another fight which ended up with a happy ending. The local campaigners petitioned the city for a street or a square to be named after Gigi in honour of his contribution to the city, however they were told that at least ten years had to pass after the death of an individual before a name could be given. But then in a nice spirit of compromise someone found out that there was no regulation on the naming of cycle routes. So two years after his death the city returned to the canal cycle route to Martesana, a special place to Gigi and named it the “Ciclovia della Martesana a Luigi Riccardi”
He had found this former industrial corridor overgrown and derelict and identified that it might make a public space for his community. Before the city shared his vision he would spend his time at weekends down on the towpath cutting back overgrown trees and weeds to open it up.
And today it is a lovely space, busy with walkers and cyclists of all generations, enjoying the warm temperatures and peaceful waters.
I don’t know of a another cycling activist who has had a public cycle route named after them, so if I had to pick a highlight of my alternative cycle tour of Milan this would be it, a summary of everything that can be achieved by those street by street campaigns.
Thanks Gigi and of course Giulia for bringing the hidden cycling stories of your city to life for me.