Like many large European cities, Milan has a pollution problem. In 2008, it was called “the pollution capitol of Europe.” Just this past December, all private cars were banned from its streets for three days in an attempt to deal with a smog emergency. Italy has just approved a $35,000,000 fund for sustainable mobility solutions. Milan wants to use some of that money to pay people to bicycle to work.
The idea was first tried in France. In 2014, French workers were offered 25 cents per kilometer to ride their bicycle to work. Out of 8,000 people eligible, only a few hundred actually signed up for the program. The pay to pedal program is being put forth by Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan’s councillor for mobility.
There’s more to it than just throwing money at people, says Ralph Buehler, an associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech. He believes such a plan has to be accompanied by other measures to make cycling a realistic option. He cites US research that found about 60% of the population are “interested but concerned” about cycling. “If you don’t provide a safe cycling environment, you will only get a very small group of people,” Buehler said. “Just paying people alone will not have that much of an effect, because you don’t get to that part of the population which are ‘enthusiastic but concerned’.”
The availability of bike paths, secure parking and showers are all areas which could affect a person’s willingness to cycle to work. “Experience shows that you can make it more difficult for people to drive, but it’s politically easier if you have other options: good incentives to cycle, good public transport, easy to walk.”
In Copenhagen, which already boasts some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world, few people cycle as a way to save money on fuel or public transport says The Guardian. According to figures from Copenhagenize Design Company, which advises governments and organisations on making cities cycle-friendly, only 6% of people in Copenhagen cycle because it’s inexpensive. The main reason people pedal their way through the city is because it’s quick and easy, 56% of cyclists said, while 19% do so for the exercise. Just 1% of people are motivated by environmental concerns.
Mikael Colville-Andersen, Copenhagenize’s chief executive, points out that poor air quality puts people off cycling. “Pollution creates an undesirable environment in a city, which doesn’t exactly encourage people to spend more time outdoors,” he said. “Pay-to-bike schemes are a nice idea, but if the city is clogged with toxic emissions, telling people to get out and cycle in it is a bit ridiculous.”
Like many cities, Milan has heavy traffic. Many bike riders simply won’t risk their 20 pound bicycles against cars that weigh two tons. Not only that, if the air is already polluted, the incentive to go outside and inhale lungfuls of toxins just isn’t there. Pay to pedal is a good idea, if it is part of a broader initiative that includes bicycle safety procedures, dedicated bicycle lanes and access to secure bicycle parking facilities. Just throwing cash at people isn’t enough to solve urban congestion and pollution.