The Political Perils of the Carless City
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 06, 2021
In Milan, authorities used the pandemic to push through changes aimed at reining in driving, while Helsinki has taken a more deliberate approach. In weaning people from cars, speed can be risky
Alessio Perrone

On Milan’s long list of pandemic-era public initiatives, remodeling Piazza Sicilia is a strange one to get worked up about. The city built the tiny park in just a few weeks last autumn, at an estimated cost of €20,000 ($23,600). The strip of land had been a right-turn lane at the intersection of busy Via Sardegna and four residential streets, jammed every morning with honking commuters and every afternoon with parents double-parked to pick up their kids from school. Now, with cars forced to divert around the piazza, one of Milan’s myriad traffic nightmares has become a place where children play soccer, food delivery riders perch on their bikes awaiting calls, and residents of nearby apartment blocks face of the pingpong table.

But people are worked up. Covers urban planning projects like Piazza Sicilia, intended to reduce traffic and provide more public space for residents locked at home during the pandemic, have become a flashpoint. In the runup to elections scheduled for October, right-of-center parties in Milan are using such post-pandemic lifestyle changes as a wedge issue.

The alterations have been far less radical than plans such as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s “15-minute city” (which aims to redesign the metropolis so residents can get most of what they need within a quarter-hour on foot) and Barcelona’s Superblocks, where entire avenues are reconceived as open spaces. But in Milan, the automobile still rules, and Covid-era changes favoring pedestrians over cars have been more tentative. Even small programs such as the one that created Piazza Sicilia have fostered the perception among some voters that the government is waging war on the Milanese auto.

In 2015, Milan outlined an urban planning strategy aimed at moving away from car-centric transit, and the urgent need for outdoor space that came with Covid-19 accelerated that transformation. City Hall is betting that small, inexpensive interventions such as Piazza Sicilia can turbocharge the transition without the need for grand infrastructure projects. “Covid has given us a stronger reason to say, ‘We must intervene,’ and this allowed for acceleration,” says Marco Granelli, Milan’s assessors for mobility and public works and an elected member of the local government. Granelli’s Democratic Party forms the base of Milan’s ruling center-left coalition, which took power in 2016 and was in office as Covid began savaging northern Italy. The coalition won international praise for quickly building three dozen “tactical plazas” such as Piazza Sicilia.

But that was last year. With the masks starting to come off and the urgency of the crisis easing, initiatives such as tactical plazas are no longer perceived as a simple crisis response. In 2021, the local governments in Milan and other cities have to own what they’re really doing: a fundamental redrawing of the urban landscape and a top-down social engineering experiment that seeks to steer residents away from the car, permanently. And officials need to do this while also getting reelected because most such changes take years. If the results don’t please a majority of Milanese, Granelli’s party risks being thrown out, and his replacement would likely kill the program. Mid-August polls by Ipsos showed an opposition rightwing group just four points behind the governing coalition.

While some politicians and drivers in Milan complain that the city has rammed reforms through too quickly, 1,200 miles northeast in Helsinki there’s concern that efforts to reduce the number of autos in the center is coming too slowly. The charges stem from a desire to limit climate-warming emissions alongside a push to boost efficiency and simply make Helsinki a nicer place to live. But with traffic that’s less snarled than Milan’s, the Finns can afford to move more slowly.

The Finnish capital has set a goal of increasing the share of trips by bike from around 9% today to 20% by 2035 (in Amsterdam it’s now 36%; in London, 2%). The more incremental approach to getting there, though, hasn’t always been by choice: It wasn’t until last year that Helsinki reached its funding target for cycling infrastructure. But the city has avoided the kinds of conflicts brewing in Milan and elsewhere. A decade ago, Helsinki started to look to Copenhagen, an urban cyclist’s paradise, for ideas. As Helsinki has grown, adding 5,000 to 8,000 residents a year so has demand for housing and transportation linking those homes to the rest of the city. “It was about the integration of cycling instead of building bicycle infrastructure where there’s room,” says Oskari Kaupinmäki, a cycling coordinator for the city.

As the underfunded transformation limps along, dissatisfaction with the changes seems to be mostly about growing pains rather than a rejection of the concept. In June, after years of slow-and-steady implementation of the program, the mayor’s party won reelection, with the deputy mayor in charge of the changes placing among the most popular candidates for city council.

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