A digested read of the Legambiente 2017 report on the cycling economy in Italy


In a recent interview (Sun 14 May 2017, the Bicycle Day in Italy) for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, the Scottish-born American musician – and cycling enthusiast – David Byrne, author of the book ‘The Bicycles Diaries‘, mentioned cities that are well known for being bike friendly, like Copenhagen [Obviously], Berlin [Yeah, why not?], Amsterdam [Of course…] and Reggio Emilia [Wow! I knew that so well, but I always thought I was  one of the very few…].

Reggio Emilia is the Northern Italian city where I was born, lived most of my life (I now live in Brighton, England), my parents live, I visit very often, etc. It is indeed very bike friendly (see my posts about cycling in the city centre here, and cycling infra here). And that is certainly the case in many other cities of the same region (Emilia-Romagna) that I know quite well, like Ferrara, Ravenna (where the photo above was taken last week by my cousin), Modena, Parma (where there is a small cargo bike delivery company – La Sajetta – and it is now possible to hire cargo bikes at the Railway Station!), as well as other cities mainly, but not only, located in the North of the country.

Although almost everyone knows the toughest multi-stage cycling race in the world, simply know as ‘Il Giro‘ (won for the first time ever a couple of weeks ago by a Dutch cyclist…), I do not think many people in the UK or the US (well, apart from David Byrne), or even in Holland or Denmark, are aware of how normal is cycling in certain cities in Italy (and honestly even in Italy not many people seem to know). I am not necessarily saying that those cities should definitely be taken as a model, but their experience could certainly add to the debate.

Luckily, at the beginning of May 2017, the Italian environmental organisation Legambiente published the First Report on the Bike Economy and Cycling Cities in Italy, in collaboration with Velolove and Grab+. Data on cycling in Italy existed previously (but not always of the best quality), and the report was a welcome step towards making the importance of the sector more visible across the country.

The main findings of the report received a lot of media attention. That, understandably, was however limited to Italy. And so this is the first of a series of post I am going to write about cycling in Italy. The Bike Economy report was written in Italian and I am going to briefly summarise it for the benefit of the non-Italian speakers. I will add some comments, additional info, questions and general considerations.

Cycling in Italy is not only Alpine passes

Well, as I often say to my English friends, simply everyone has one or more bicycles (the n+1 rule is very popular) in my city (most of what I am going to say here does apply to other cities). Bikes are generally (note that ‘generally’ and ‘generalisation’ share the same etymology), oldish (your grandpa’s one, and I mean it literally), rusty, and definitely upright. You generally use the bike that you have available at home, and that can well be a ladies one even if you are a man. Bicycles are used to go almost everywhere within urban areas (unfortunately all those with bicycles also have cars, and vice versa…but the situation is slowly changing), parked everywhere against the palazzos’ walls, in the racks, or simply left on their stand in front of shop windows, and generally secured with frame locks or very light chains (well, until someone steals them, sometimes simply because they are late to catch a train…). Cycling is very utilitarian, carried out with normal clothes (my dad cycled to work – about 3 km each way -wearing suit and tie for years). Helmets are very rare for everyday cycling (it is different for children, never worn one when I was little, but now a tiny bit more of children wear them, and while I still do not wear one in the UK, my children generally do when on their bikes or with me – but they do not really wear one when we are in Italy…). Unfortunately, lights are also rare. I do not think I have ever seen a high-visibility jacket in my region (apart from the children and adults taking part in the Bici Bus to go to school). High-visibility jackets are now however compulsory when riding at night out of urban areas.

A good chunk of the city centre (Centro Storico) is pedestrianized. The remaining is reserved to vehicles with resident or work permits, and delivery vans. There are no lorries (>7.5t) circulating in or next to the city centre, unless under special permission. In all central streets, one way systems do not apply to bicycles. In the pedestrianized streets and piazzas cyclists and pedestrians cohabit fairly well, even on market days. It is my impression that people cycling in the pedestrianized areas go much slower than their counterparts in Holland though (at least in Delft and Leiden, where I was about two months ago). Often starting right outside of the Centro Storico and spreading to the different suburbs, there are a lot of separated cycleways (more info below), in the vast majority of cases shared with pedestrians, and more are planned. They are certainly not as sophisticated as the Dutch ones though. For example, there are no dedicated traffic lights. There are some underpasses, and raised crossings at roundabouts. Car drivers, while they generally fail to stop at zebra crossings when there is a pedestrian, do tend to stop when there is a cyclist, especially if it is an elderly person carrying shopping bags on both sides of the handlebar…(and there are quite a lot of them).

The highlights of the report

Enough about my city, I will tell you much more about it (including the issues, and there certainly are) in a post in the very near future [note of December 2017, the post about Reggio Emilia is now live]. Back to the report now, first the main highlights:

  • The economic benefit of cycling in Italy has been estimated at 6.206.587.766 Euros
  • Cycling modal share (based on number of trips) in urban areas is above 20% in six cities: Bolzano (28%), Pesaro (28%), Ferrara (27%), Treviso (25%), Reggio Emilia (23%), Ravenna (22%)
  • There are considerable differences across the country in terms of modal share, and the national average is only 3.6%
  • Modal share reaches 6% in Italy’s second largest city, Milan; but it is only 0.5% in Rome
  • Modal share at national level remained the same in the period 2009-2015, despite a 50% increase in cycleways

Now, I’ll go through the different subjects with a bit more details

The economic benefits of cycling

That was estimated to be at more that 6bn Euros. The figure was calculated following a similar methodology as the one used by the European Cycling Federation (EFC) for their 2016 report ‘The EU Cycling Economy’, and includes: the production of bicycles and their accessories, cycling tourism, as well as the positive externalities created by cycling (reduced fuel consumption and emissions, and increased health of the population).

I do not have all the info at the moment for a more thorough judgement of the methodology used, but a quick look at the relevant section at the end of the report, were figures are elaborated a bit, as well as at the ECF report, makes me think that the assumptions are reasonable overall. However, the Legambiente report uses the word ‘fatturato’, which should be translated as ‘sales figures’. I do not think it is the proper terminology, so I prefer using economic benefit, perhaps not the most precise either, but better.

Obviously it sounds like a huge sum. So, to give it a bit of perspective, the report points out that the figure considerably exceeds the revenue (here the word used is ‘ricavi’) generated by the export of wine (and given the amount of Prosecco my English friends drink I do believe it is a huge sum…), as well as the sales figure of Ferrari.

Italy is the largest bicycle manufacturer in the EU. Almost 2 and half million pieces were produced in Italy in 2015, and that represented a share of almost 18% of the European market. However, while production has been increasing, the number of bikes sold in Italy has been decreasing in the last 5 years (as anecdotal evidence, I think the last time someone in my family in Italy bought a new bike was some time in the 1990s; and the situation is similar among my friends, perhaps a couple bought a new racing bike or a mountain bike in the last 5 years but not more than that…and they already regretted it as the bikes got stolen..). Interestingly, the average price of bicycle purchased in Italy in 2015 was 325 Euros, a figure similar to France, Finland and the UK. Much more was spent in Holland (914 Euros) and Denmark (650 Euros), and I am pretty sure that is because the Dutch and the Danes do love e-bikes and  cargo bikes. The electric bikes market is not quite mature yet in Italy, however, more recent info from a separate source indicates that 124,000 e-bikes were sold in 2016, an increase of 120% with respect to 2015. For comparison, in Holland, 276,000 e-bikes were sold in 2015; while in France and the UK, with a similar population to Italy, 102,000 and 40,000 were the sales figures, respectively.

Modal share, infrastructure, and cycling friendly cities

So, Reggio Emilia is among the most cycling friendly cities in Italy, not the first one though. The report identifies bike friendly cities in accordance with modal share over the total trips in urban areas. In 2015, that was 28% in Bolzano and Pesaro, 27% in Ferrara, 25% in Treviso, 23% in Reggio Emilia and 22% in Ravenna, with shares over 15% in other 6 cities (data were not provided by all cities, unfortunately). In terms of Reggio Emilia, other info (not included in the report) shows that the cycling modal share of trips to the Centro Storico reaches 48%.

Ok, these figures need to be compared with data elsewhere, and that was not easy. It took me some time and still I am not satisfied by the figures I have found. But, in the process I have learnt many things. For example, there are people who think that some cities, including Amsterdam (and Groningen), inflate a bit their cycling modal share. It was difficult to find same year info for a lot of cities, and shares in some cases refer to all trips, in others to commuting trips to work or education only. Anyway, the highest modal share in Europe seems to be the one displayed by Groningen in Holland (61%). 53% seems to be the share for Amsterdam (in 2014?),  while 45% (not sure it is the total trips one or commuting and education trips) was the figure for Copenhaguen in 2014. Best city in Germany seems to be Freiburg, with a 34% modal share in 2016, while 15% is the latest figure for Berlin. 15% is the figure for Strasbourg in France (apparently, the real cargo bikes paradise). 9% is one of the most successful story in Spain, Seville. My beloved Ljubliana in Slovenia achieves a 12% modal share. Cycling modal share in London is growing considerably especially in certain areas, but overall it is about 2%. Best performing city in the UK is by far Cambridge, with modal share achieving around 20% [I found the data across a number of sources, very happy and grateful to be corrected if you have more precise info].

Back to Italy now. In the Alpine city of Bolzano, the first in the modal share ranking, the local administration has worked to connect all importance education and leisure centres with cycleways. Where separate infrastructure was not possible, restrictions to speed limits and street parking were used to make road easier and safer to be tackled by bicycle. Marketing also played an important role. In the Adriatic city of Pesaro, situated in the central region of Marche, the effort concentrated on light infrastructure and communication.  A great idea was the creation of the Bicipolitana (the Italian word for underground/subway is ‘Metropolitana’), 85km of cycleways (some separated, some not) identified by coloured lines in a typical undergound/subway map (their logo is quite familiar…).

More figures about infrastructure now. Reggio Emilia has been for years the city in Italy with the highest amount of cycle infrastructure per inhabitant, and it was still the case in 2015. Each inhabitant can enjoy 41 metres of cycleways (the second city in the ranking is neighbouring Mantova, with 26 metres). That makes a total of 235km of cycle ways (separated and non). To those we can add 115km of zones where the speed limit for motor vehicles is reduced to 30km/h. Interestingly, in Bolzano, Pesaro, Ferrara and Treviso, the cities where modal share is higher than in Reggio Emilia, the figures were only 16, 18,19 and 13 metres, respectively.

But all of the cities I mentioned above are small/medium ones (between 80,000 and 170,000 inhabitants), so what about large cities? The report briefly discusses the case of Milan where total trips modal shares was 6.6% in 2015, and compares it with Rome, where the same figure is only 0.5%. Hopefully the latter figure will increase when the GRAB project is completed. The Grande Raccordo Anulare delle Bici (GRA, without ‘delle Bici’ is the name of the notorious ring motorway encircling Rome) is the project of a 45km cycle and pedestrian way within the city of Rome. Of these 45kms, almost 30 are planned along dedicated ways, villas’ gardens and riverbanks. The project official website is in Italian only, but do scroll down and have a look at the animated pictures showing the kind of interventions that are planned, they look really good. I would really like to ride it one day with my cargobike, but I am not sure it is going to handle the cobblestones of the Via Appia Antica that easily…

The Grab is not the only long cycleway under discussion in Italy at the moment. Those will hopefully represent a huge boost to cycling rate and, especially, cycling tourism. Financing for preliminary feasibility and economic studies for three other ‘Ciclovie Nazionali‘ (National Cycleways) has been recently (26 May) approved by the Infrastructure and Transport Ministry (as an aside note, the Minister, Graziano del Rio, here pictured riding without hands commuting to the Ministry on his first day as minister,  was born in Reggio Emilia and was mayor of the city between 2004 and 2013). These are: Ciclovia dell’ Acquedotto Pugliese (AQP), the extension Verona to Florence of the Ciclovia del Sole (part of Eurovelo 7), and the Ciclovia VenTo (Venezia-Torino).

The table on  page 18 of the report illustrates the huge difference in terms of cycling infrastructure across the country. With the exception of the Sardinian city of Oristano, all best performing cities are in the North. In seven central and Southern cities, there are no cycleways at all (or they did not filled the questionnaire,). This takes me to the national average modal share of 3.6% mentioned in the highlights above. Although I knew well about differences across different regions, and how cycling friendly is my region of Emilia Romagna compared to others, I was not expecting the national modal share to be so low. It is very difficult to find comparable (and, above all, recent) statistics on modal share, especially at national level so again I had to dig a bit (and reserve myself for a more thorough paper in the near future).  The top performing country in Europe is Holland, with a modal share of 27%. In Denmark, the corresponding figure is 15%, while in Austria is 8.3%. Earlier info shows Germany with a modal share of 9.5% (2011). 2% was the figure for England in 2015, the same seems to be the figure for whole of the UK.

One of the main finding of the report is that the national modal share of 3.6% did not change in the period 2008/2015 despite an addition of 1,346 Km of new cycleways in the main cities (those that are capital of provinces), which represented an increase of 50%. While that is certainly disappointing, it is not enough to stop seeing proper, and separated as much as possible, infrastructure as the main tool to reduce the vulnerability of cyclists and increase cycling levels. So, Legambiente rightly concludes that quality matters the most, not only quantity, and the report discusses the main typical guidelines for good cycling infrastructure, as well as the necessary synergy with policies geared towards prioritising cycling, and walking, over motor vehicles in urban areas.

Parking and bike sharing schemes

Two additional indicators of the cycling friendliness of cities are the presence of dedicated cycling parking facilities, and the amount of people registered to bike sharing schemes. I do think dedicated parking facilities are wonderful and essential, but the lack of those has not always represented a great deterrent to just ‘get on your bike to go somewhere’ in cities like mine, where bicycle are simply parked everywhere all over the city centre. And it is nice and convenient to leave it where there is a bit of space (and you do not block anyone) close enough to (if not in front of) your destination (I sound a bit like a car driver here…), and then hop on the bike again, and then stop again when and where it is necessary.

Different is the situation at transport interchanges like Railway Stations. For example, have a look at this photo taken some years ago showing the amount of bicycles parked in front of Ferrara Railway Station. Bolzano has a total of 650 dedicated cycle parking spaces at its railway station, and good facilities can also be found in Brescia, Padova (830 spaces!) and Ravenna. Mestre, near Venice has also a new Bicipark, with 200 places, which does look like a Dutch one.

Bike sharing schemes are active in 51 municipalities in Italy with, on average, 220 bikes, located in 20 different stations, and used by about 3,300 registered users. Milan has the highest rate (3,46 per 1000 inhabitants) of available bikes (including electric ones). With the exception of Ferrara and Treviso, the cycling friendly cities identified above have no scheme in place or a tiny number of bikes. In terms of users, Brescia is the best performing city with 85 registered users every 1000 inhabitants.  33 is the figure for Milan, the 4th best performing city.

Road safety for cyclists

The vulnerability of cyclists on the road has been a hot topic in the news in Italy in the past few months. At the end of April, the former Giro d’Italia winner Michele Scarponi tragically died following a road accident while he was out training not far from his home. Few weeks ago the MotoGp American rider Nick Hayden was also involved in a road accident near Cesena, and died few days later.

Italy is normally perceived as a country were roads are dangerous (I perceive them to be so, with the respect to the UK, when I drive, but certainly not when I cycle), but accident rates have generally been decreasing in the last decades. However, Italy’s roads still remain more dangerous than those in most Western European countries, and this seems to also apply to cyclists. The Legambiente report briefly discusses the situation in 2015, that was not a good year, with the total number of victims (all users) increasing for the first time since 2001 to a total of 3,428. However, rates per population are still going down, and the increased number of victims could also be a products of higher distances covered by motor vehicles in 2015. More recent data from the different police forces shows that mortality has decreased again in the first two months of 2017.

In 2015 there were 602 pedestrians and 251 (about half of them over 65 years old) cyclists among the victims of road accidents. It has to be noted that victims among cyclists were less than in the previous year (-8.8%), differently from pedestrians (+4%), but still too many. For comparison, 113 cyclists died on UK (with similar population but different cycling rates) roads in 2014 where the number of those killed or seriously injured declined in the period 2000-2014. Absolute numbers do not say all, and the same could be said about rates with respect to population and vehicles involved in accidents.  For example, in absolute numbers Holland is the country in Europe where the highest share of road victims are cyclists. Ok, but everyone cycles there, and the story would be different if we look at accident by kms covered by bike (not easy, I know), or by number of cyclists. The latter was done by the European Cycling Federation in their 2013 Barometer, and shows that Italy is indeed a more dangerous place for cycling than most Western European countries.

A proposal for a law (know as ‘Legge Salvaciclisti‘ – ‘Save the cyclists’) enforcing a minimum overtaking distance of 1.5m has started the approval process in the Senate in March 2017 (the process is going to take its time, you know that in Italy we like doing things slowly but carefully…). Not all cycling organisations are that enthusiast about that, as they envisage the rule will not be really enforced, and that the efforts should instead be addressed to the approval of the new Highway Code.

Back to the cycling friendly cities now. Info about accident rates with respect to the population at local level (produced by the National Statistical Institute ISTAT) show that in 2014 the cities mentioned above had a mortality rate well above the national level (0.37 victims every 100,000 inhabitants). Again that can simply be because people do cycle there. In any case, in Treviso there were no victims in 2014, Ferrara was the cycle friendly city with the second lowest rate (0.75), followed by Bolzano (0.94) and Pesaro (1.09). Reggio Emilia had 1.74, and Ravenna a disappointing 2.52 .  The rates for Milan and Rome were very low, at 0.38 and 0.17, respectively. When we look at the rates with respect to the vehicles involved in accidents, Ferrara and Bolzano  were below the national average, while Reggio Emilia was slightly above. And while Milan and Rome had low rates, those were very high in some Southern cities.

And finally, a very interesting app looking at cycling friendly cities in terms of safety as perceived by cyclists (and I guess mostly based on the quality of infrastructure), wecity, put Reggio Emilia in first place, followed by Torino, Modena and Bologna. Ferrara, with very low accidents rates as seen just above has instead a fairly low index as judged by its users.

To conclude

Certainly a good report, so well done to Legambiente and all the other organisations involved with it. I hope you have found both the info from the report and the ones I added from additional sources interesting and useful. I am going to write more about cycling and bike friendly cities in Italy in the very near future, so keep an eye on these pages. If you have any question, or want me to elaborate on certain points, do not hesitate to use the comment box below or get in touch. Even more so if you have errors to signal and/or corrections or additions to propose.

All the best


8 June 2017

All opinions expressed in this post are my own and I have received no incentive whatsoever from any of the companies, organisations or businesses mentioned above

Here you can read about me, this is a bit about my research, and here you can see my publications. You can follow me on twitter here

8 thoughts on “A digested read of the Legambiente 2017 report on the cycling economy in Italy

  1. Hi Alberto,
    Thanks for this post, it was a very good read and obviously a lot of effort went into the research eg I think youve picked up that some high-cycling cities tend to inflate their mode share which BTW I read recently should also include Groningen in the Netherlands – not “Holland” (I know some Dutch people object to the former, such as Amsterdamize aka Marc van Woudenberg.

    I recall reading good things about Ferrara on Mikael Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize several years ago but until now that was all I’d read about everyday cycling in Italy. It seems odd that in the No.1 bike manufacturing nation that most bikes people use for utility are quite old. Not that there’s anything wrong with old “ladies” bikes as I own a few myself and just love the look of them

    Adelaide, Australia

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jim,
    thank you very much for your comment. You are right about Holland/Netherlands, I should have been more precise, plus I have always been a bit of a geography geek…
    About the old bikes, I think the situation is a bit different in larger cities like Milan, where I did see more modern and fashionable bicycles (although I personally find old rusty vintage ones very cool too). I have not checked the info yet, but I also suspect most bicycles produced in Italy are racing bikes, and those are really not popular for everyday cycling. And perhaps, bicycles are a bit like food for Italian people, we do not like to be too adventurous and go against traditions. So, neither we would change a single thing in our grandma’s recipe for cappelletti or lasagne, nor we would use any other bicycle but hers (or something very similar)….
    All the best


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