Last week I made a return visit to the Italian city of Verona to work at Cosmobike, the largest bike exhibition in Italy. This was very interesting because I first came here in 2012 when I was just a few months into my role as a traveling observer of cyclists.
Verona was a particularly stimulating trip which really got me writing – I was taken by the lovely city as a backdrop, but also the huge contrasts in the city’s cycling. There was a vibrant local FIAB local group fighting against a city administration that seemed determined to let cars overwhelm their city, ruining some of the most beautiful spots. Four years later seems a very good opportunity to see if I could see the difference – both in the city and in my writing.
I heard from colleagues that politically nothing had changed, the same mayor is in power and he is resisting almost any step that might remove one parked car or close one street to cars so I had really not expected to see any significant change in cycling during this visit and I had mentally prepared myself to draft another disappointed critique of the lack of vision by the city.
However when I got to my hotel in the city centre I had to do an immediate reset.
Outside the hotel there was a large cycle parking rack, and it was full. And the cycle lane past the hotel was definitely not empty.
That spiked my curiosity so I was quickly out for a walk to try and capture the mood of the cyclists in Verona. Before I even got to looking at the people I could see the instant signs of a city that has a cycling problem it can’t cope with.
The cycling parking was packed to overflowing and there were bikes locked to every stationary object, even including the ancient monuments such as the Roman arena and the Bra Gates (Portoni della Bra). In many cities this disfiguring of the historic cityscape would be regarded as a major problem by the authorities, however since the Verona authorities don’t care about cars parking anywhere the bikes are probably a minor issue.
The parking was clearly needed because there were many cyclists pottering about the city centre and I enjoyed myself photographing them with the city as a backdrop (or stalking as my wife calls it).
This is all very encouraging, it appears that since I was last here many more citizens of Verona have recognised that bikes are the very best way to get around the narrow congested streets and they have made their own minds up to ride. A couple of years ago I wrote a thesis that one way cycling grows is when congestion so bad people will ride bikes even without many cycling facilities, I suspect Verona might be an example of that. Only imagine how much life could improve if the mayor woke up to the potential of a truly car free centre.
However with all this positivity you might wonder why I have highlighted the “missing cyclists” in the title of the blog.
Well when I got back from my first photographic sorties I was scanning the pictures when I noticed something quite unusual. I present it to you in the form of three galleries. See anything odd?
It is a long standing thesis in cycle policy that two groups in society that are hard to attract into daily cycling are women and immigrants, especially in cities with poor infrastructure where the majority of riders will be adult white men.
That seems to be completely contradicted in Verona. Women of all ages were by far the biggest number of cyclists, often combining the simplicity of cycling with a distinct touch of Italian cycle chic.
For most cities outside the Netherlands and Denmark men dominate cycling so this is a really interesting case.
I had much fewer pictures of men and those I did have were all ethnic minorities and older white guys who were cruising about with a calm lack of urgency which suggested retirement rather than business.
This was so contrary to expectations that I actually went out looking for the Italian blokes, just in case I had missed something. Perhaps was only a tourist and shopping area, not the centre of employment? Taking a VeronaBike from the shared bike system and heading out into the rush hour I certainly saw a few more working age guys, but they were a minority of the species and even then I was not sure if they were tourists.
Saving grace of course came back in the city, Idonotdespair would genuinely despair if I couldn’t find a single cool dude on a bike, it would be like hipsters never happened.
But he was the only one.
It would be fascinating to study what is actually happening with transport demographics in Verona. If I was speculating and recycling clichés I wonder if the lack of challenge to cars in this city’s thinking is because the macho men are stuck in an automobile mind-set, and in their cars? Is biking to work somehow beyond the mental reach of most native male Veronese?
If the male workers of Verona cycled to work as much as the women could cycling in the city double?
This is a headline I could never imagine writing “cycling needs more white middle aged guys”. Now there’s a thought!