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February 10, 2023
Climate Justice

Can a car-less city exist? Mobility between Utopia and Reality

Insight by Michela Grasso, SPAGHETTIPOLITICS

On the morning of January 19th, as the residents of Milano’s Risorgimento prepared to commute, they found the tires of their SUVs deflated. On the windshields were flyers signed by the suvversivə, an environmental group that deflates SUV tires as an act of protest. A few days later, on January 24th, a human cycle path was formed on Galvani street, a line of people protected the space dedicated to bicycles from 7.30 to 9.00, the cycle lane is usually impracticable due to cars parking on it. The human cycle path was made simultaneously in the cities of Roma, Firenze, Cagliari, Torino and Treviso. Meanwhile, in the past weeks, there has been a debate on the choice of making Milan a ‘cittá 30’ in 2024, meaning cars will not be allowed to exceed the speed limit of 30 km per hour. 

It seems that Milano and many milanesi are complaining more and more about how public space is used, especially when it comes to mobility. Despite the enviable public transport network, Milano is lacking cycling spaces. Cycle lanes exist, but they are often battered, not connected, and not properly mapped, without mentioning how they become alternative parking spaces in the busiest areas. For this reason, several citizens have started a debate around the auto-centric culture of one of the most populous cities in Italy, which inevitably leads to rethinking the role that mobility plays in creating or destroying livable spaces.

«For our action», the suvversivə explained to Voice Over Foundation, «we were inspired by the book by Andreas Malm 'How to blow up a pipeline', a fundamental book for understanding the movements of the last period. We were tired of seeing the inequalities of emissions, hearing that we are all equally responsible for climate change». The choice of the SUV as a target has several reasons, explained in their flier. First of all, such large cars without aerodynamic shapes pollute a lot. According to research reported by the Guardian, if SUVs were a nation, they would be seventh in the world for CO2 emissions. In addition, the demand for SUVs is very high, with 35 million SUVs sold in 2018, which is equivalent to 4 out of 10 cars sold. SUVs, according to the suvversivə, but also according to various research, are more dangerous than other cars. While there are fewer accidents with SUVs, the fatality rate is higher when they are involved. The driver of an SUV is 11% more likely to die in a crash than the driver of a smaller car, and children are eight times more likely to die in a crash with an SUV or pick-up truck. But for the suvversivə there is another point: the SUV represents a status symbol, it is a synonym of wealth and it is not correct that cars of this kind are driven in cities, during a climate emergency, to symbolize belonging to a social class.

One may or may not agree with the suvversivə, but it is difficult to deny the evidence: cities are dominated by cars, and the bigger the cars, the less space is left for those who choose to move differently.

Urban planning in a city is a political process and should be treated as such. A well-connected city, accessible to all, where road and environmental safety are ensured, is a city that gives all its citizens the opportunity to live a peaceful life.

«The city is a space where unique possibilities for human development are created», explains Luca Bertolini, professor of urban planning at the University of Amsterdam, «The critical mass and diversity present within a city have enormous potential for the creation of new combinations and realities. The city is a space where you can find and create your own way. For this to happen there must be spaces where everyone's potential has the opportunity to flourish, they cannot be created by a single mind and a single group of people». 

European and western cities are not sustainable and compatible with the limited resources of our planet, from the waste of resources, to pollution, to the inequality between rich and poor. Yet, writes the professor, facilitating the repetition of these models only legitimizes them and makes them desirable.

According to Luca Bertolini, one of the challenges that must be resolved is the inequality between different areas of the city: «In big cities, it is difficult to have a good quality of life in the periphery without moving elsewhere every day. In this way, the periphery depends on the center, making the center less and less accessible. There are two challenges, on the one hand enriching the periphery and on the other making the centers more accessible. When it comes to enriching and making it more accessible, it is not a purely economic discourse but also a cultural one. A person must be able to feel at home in the suburbs, and in the center. At the moment, given the difference between the two spaces, this becomes difficult». 

The continuous movement of people to go to work, to the hospital, to school, and to carry out any activity is a consequence of the times in which we live. Maybe we move too much? A challenge of our time is to disconnect motorized mobility from its environmental impact, something we have not yet managed to do, explains the professor. Even electric cars have a strong impact on the environment, albeit less visible (for example in the production and disposal of batteries, in the procurement of raw materials based on extractivism with a strong environmental and social impact). Depending so much on the daily commute, makes us wonder about the quality of our life. Not finding what we need to live nearby, not even one's social relationships, leads to not feeling at home anywhere, and has a strong impact on the perception we have of the city and on our minds.


For this reason the actions of the suvversivə and that of the human cycle path lead us to reflect on the city in which we live. What point have we reached, if we need to protect a cycle path from cars that want to park on it? Who has the right to move safely in our cities? Radical and subversive actions have the benefit of confronting us with the reality of the facts, and stimulating in us a thought about our choices and rights.

Giovanni Mandelli, 28, lives in Milano and has been working in the municipality of Reggio Emilia since 2020 where he deals with mobility projects. «I have carried out some tactical urban planning projects. For example, I dealt with traffic moderation in a street in the historic center where cars drove very fast. To reduce their speed, we have removed the parking spaces and replaced them with parklets, platforms where bars can set up tables outside. In addition, we have placed planters on both sides, so as not to have a straight trajectory and force the cars to proceed more slowly. Another project was to solve a traffic problem in front of a high school, where chaos was formed at the time of entry and exit of the students. Through a process of participation by citizens and entrepreneurs, we removed the parking spaces within two years, creating a space with trees and planters. It's annoying at first glance, but then it bears fruit: the creation of safer spaces open to all». 

Tactical urbanism is an approach to city planning that puts the inhabitant at the center and envisages actions that improve public spaces, to make them more useful, safe and pleasant. The greatest benefit of this approach is its temporary nature, no project is definitive and perennial, but it can change with the needs and requirements of the citizens, allowing them to participate in the transformation of the space where they live. For this reason, projects such as the appropriation of a parking lot in front of a school by citizens, to make it a public green space open to all, become seeds of resistance in various cities.

Moving in the space around us is not just a matter of getting from A to B. The way we move shapes our daily lives and gives us a specific experience of the city. A city where you can move around by bike safely, where there is no need to be stuck in traffic in an endless queue of cars carrying only one person and where the road is a space shared and organized by citizens, it is a city where each individual can develop their potential more easily.

Giovanni has studied architecture and has been interested in mobility for years, especially in the bicycle. In 2019 he opened an Instagram page called stradapertutti, where he talks about his experience as a cyclist in Italy, and leads a monthly Challenge to demonstrate how much CO2 we do not emit when moving by bike. For example, in all of 2022, people who joined the challenge traveled 220.478 km by bicycle, not emitting 26.457 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. «In my opinion», explains Giovanni, «what is needed is a cultural change. Citizens must have the tools to understand that taking a car is not sustainable. In Milan, bike culture is spreading, but riding a bike is often dangerous. When I go out on my bike I always have to be very careful, I often have to look over my shoulder, wear lights at night and signal my every movement, I don't ride my bike very serenely». 

In Italy every day 8 people die in a car accident. «Newspapers must change the narrative of the accidents. You cannot just write 'pedestrian dies in an accident', removing the responsibility from the car and the driver. The problem with these accidents is primarily the car and the management of a space that does not allow you to move around safely on foot or by bike». Cultural changes often start from communication tools, such as newspapers, telling news in one way rather than another will change the reader's perception of the fact.

While living in the society of efficiency and productivity, going fast is almost an obligation. Waking up early in the morning and spending hours in traffic is an experience shared by millions of people every day. Projects that widen roads, adding car lanes, are celebrated, and the removal of parking lots for the construction of cycle paths is detested. Increasing the infrastructure dedicated to cars only makes our cities even more self-centric, despite the fact that cars are parked on average 95% of the time.

And while national politics, once again, favors monumental, highly impactful projects, such as the bridge over the Strait of Messina, Italian cities remain inaccessible to many. Perhaps, with the PNRR we will be able to see some changes, but only if we invest adequately in local and sustainable projects to rethink our model of mobility. For now, 1.3 billion euros have been allocated to cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants for the purchase of new buses and non-polluting vehicles. Regarding mobility by bicycle, 600 million euros have been allocated for the construction of 1,235 km of tourist cycle paths and 565 km of urban cycle paths. Projects that could really work, but only when involving local authorities to fully understand the needs of each territory, creating a push from below and not from above.

Life’s improvement does not depend on how quickly one can get to another city to work, such thoughts will only encourage the culture of efficiency and productivity. Likewise, it does not depend on the model or number of cars owned, or on the number of roads and parking lots on city streets. Living in a safe city, from a street and environmental safety point of view, where the road belongs to the community, may seem like a mirage. The image of green spaces, divided between pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, where mobility is pleasant and not a constraint, seems to come from a Solar Punk book, where the future is imagined as sustainable and fair. Yet, the non-violent mobilizations of recent months indicate a clear desire for change on the part of a growing number of citizens. Will they be able to make utopia a reality?

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