Cycling Cities: The Reggio Emilia Way – Part 1: Il Centro Storico

“Bici e resistenza” (Bicycle and Resistence) says the writing on the graffiti above, painted on the old kiosk of Piero, the partisan mechanic who repaired bicycles for many years there (even mine, when I was very little). That image describes well the importance of bicycles in the history (and future) of the city of Reggio Emilia, in Northern Italy. When I was taking the picture, a lady in her seventies stopped by and we had a little chat. She told me: “la bicicletta e’ la mia migliore amica, senza di lei non potrei fare niente – my bicycle is my best friend, I would be lost without it”. That sums up pretty well the approach to cycling in the city

In my previous post about cycling cities in Italy, I promised a better look at the cycling culture and infrastructure of my city (I do not live any longer there, but I still go very frequently), and here I am. In this first post, I will try to give you an idea of what cycling is about there, by focusing on the historical city centre “Centro Storico“. In a subsequent post (now completed), I will discuss the network of cycling infrastructure in the rest of the city.

The Centro Storico is the area inside the old city walls (the walls are not there any longer, apart from a couple of small bits). Here you have a glance of a typical morning there.



What you see above is the very central Via Emilia, which crosses the city, the province, and the whole Emilia Romagna region (from Piacenza to Rimini). The vast majority of the Centro Storico is pedestrianized and the video above shows a good spectrum of the type of vehicles you are likely to encounter depending on the time of the day (very few in the evening and night). First of all, a lot of people walking and cycling, taxis (not that many), delivery vehicles, the Minibu (a ‘miniature’ bus service which connects the Centro Storico with the ‘parcheggi scambiatori’, similar to the ‘park and ride’ facilities in the UK cities), and the postie moped (all other mopeds are not allowed to circulate there). The only things missing on the video are the residents’ private cars, but you do not normally see that many.  Access to the Centro Storico is regulated by cameras and automated bollards. Oh, and obviously emergency vehicles also have access to the pedestrianised area, like the Municipal Police’s little electric van (they have quite a lot of officers who go around by bicycle as well…)

furgoncino vigili

Before continuing the description of cycling in the city, let me give you some basic info. Reggio Emilia (or nell’Emilia) is located in the region of Emilia Romagna (a region with a very long cycling tradition), in Northern Italy. It has 172,000 inhabitants. The climate can be summarised in a few words: it is extremely hot in Summer, very cold in Winter, and relatively fine in between. The city is famous (although I am pretty sure you do not know about it…) for being the main production area, and site of the Consortium of producers of the Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese. It is also the birthplace of a very popular (especially in the US, Australia and the UK) education approach for nursery schools.

carta ciclabilita'

In 2015, 23% of all trips were made by bicycle (14.1% was the share observed in 2006, and since then, the car and motorbike share went down from 68% to 58%). A higher share was only recorded in Bolzano/Bozen (at the top of the map above) and Pesaro (at the right end on the map), both with 28%, Ferrara (27%), and Treviso (25%) [see my June post for more info on cycling in all these cities]. A slightly lower % (22) was recorded in nearby Ravenna (I described cycling on the coast around Ravenna in my September post).

While not at the top spot for cycling modal share, Reggio Emilia however boosts the highest index of cycling infrastructure per inhabitant in Italy, with a figure of 41 metres for 100 inhabitants, followed by nearby Mantova (26) (shares and infra index in the map above, taken from my recent – September 2017 – presentation at the Cycling and Society Conference in London). That makes a total of 235kms of mostly separated cycleways, which I describe here, to which we have to add 115kms of streets where the speed limit is 30kph, and that includes the whole of the Centro Storico.

But what about the Centro Storico itself. Well, the area covers approximately 3.5 sq. Kms, and hosts of a population of about 25000 people, as well as a number of retail outlets, businesses, administrative offices, and places of cultural interests. It simply is the core of the city. And, for specific trips to the Centro Storico, the cycling modal share reaches 48%.

The Via Emilia shown in the video above is the main artery of the city, with quite a lot of shops, so generally the busiest. There are other streets in the Centro Storico where you do not frequently encounter the vehicles which are allowed to circulate in the pedestrianised area. So here a quick shot of one street leading to the main square, “Piazza Prampolini” or “del Duomo” where the Cathedral, the Municipality (there you can find the Sala del Tricolore, where the tricolor flag of what then became Italy was first adopted in 1797), and the main city bank are located.



As you can see in both videos, people ride upright old (or vintage if you prefer) bikes in very normal clothes (and generally people do not pay too much attention to whether the bicycle is a ladies or men model). I would even say the you make an extra effort to look good when you are cycling, as you are much more visible than in a car, and you cover much more distance in the Centro Storico (so more eyes on you) than if you were walking…

High-viz are very rare, but they are compulsory when riding at night out of urban areas. Helmets are also very rare. Everyone has a bicycle (generally more than one), and uses it at least a bit.  Cycling is generally quite slow and relaxed, even among commuters at peak times. It is certainly much slower than in the UK (what I can see in London, and in Brighton, where I live), but I would say also noticeably slower than what I recently observed in some similar old city centres in the Netherlands (Delft and Leyden, but certainly there are less young students in Reggio Emilia than in the two Dutch cities).

In the Centro Storico, bicycles are parked everywhere against the palazzos’ walls (like in the pics below), in the racks (those are not enough for the number of bikes), or simply left on their stand in front of shop or cafes windows.

bici portici


Sometimes people look for a bit more security when locking their bikes, like in the case below, where a very good looking old Legnano is attached to the wall via a tiny ring that most likely had another use…


In this other pic, you’ll see that the quest for a more secure place where to attach your bike does not spare shop windows railings…

libreria goliardica

You can see there is a message on the railings. It says: “The shop is going to open! It is forbidden to lay and attach bikes. Thanks!!!”. Obviously the owner of the blue bike did not read the notice. To his excuse, I took this pic on a Sunday, and indeed that bookshop (like most of the other shops) does not open on a Sunday.

There are cycle racks in the Centro Storico, but they clearly do not meet the demand. Above all, people like parking their bicycles as close as possible to their destination(s) when going to work or strolling across shops and cafes. Talking about cafes, for your information, an espresso costs from 0.90 to 1.10 euros, a cappuccino or latte macchiato 1.20, a wonderful pastry made in the premises, or not very far, 1.20 euros. My family’s favourite cafe is Bar Pasticceria Antica Resti in Via Emilia San Pietro…

latte macchiato

…where for breakfast you can have (among many other things) from left to right: “Chizza Erbazzone”, a savoury puff pastry filled with chard, a wonderful “Maddalena“, a sweet mix of puff and shortcrust pastry, which you can only find in Reggio Emilia, and a “Latte Macchiato”, rigorously, and I repeat rigorously, served with the separated espresso brick so you can dose the coffee by yourself on top of the milk and not viceversa… And for lunch I do like Panificio Melli and the recent discovery Gastrot.

Enough food porn, back to the bicycles. You have seen what people ride. Generally quite old ones (I mainly use one that my dad bought in the early 80s when I am there, unless he beats me in the morning to it, and I am pretty sure my grandad used it a bit as well). There are few exceptions though, like the very stylish one made by Signor Azzolini (a local bicycle artisan), which was parked right in front of  the knife sharpener (Signor Spezzani, another artisan) shop.


Note that the Italian Highway Code says that bicycles must not be parked on the pavement, but only on dedicated racks. This is obviously neither respected nor enforced in the city (and there are not enough racks anyway). It has to be said, however, that in a pedestrianised area, the distinction between pavement and street is not straightforward and, as you can see above, the cobbles are often, but not always, more or less on the same level…Having said that, old city centres in Italy do remain a bit challenging for people with disabilities and/or for non-standard bicycles (and if you are used to pristine surfaces, cycling, even very slow, on the cobbles, is indeed a different experience).

And what about cargo bikes? Well, I had never seen one before in the city, and always felt a bit jealous of nearby Parma, where you can hire cargo bikes at the railway station. But while I was cycling around looking for some nice pics to take I came across these…

cargo bikes

…pizza delivery trikes. Personally, I think a pizza must be eaten on the spot, straight out of the oven. But, I could possibly make an exception for one delivered by cargo bike (but I will still put my oven on for a gentle reheat in case).

Cycling is allowed everywhere in the Centro Storico, with two main exceptions. One is the ‘Sotto Broletto‘, an underpass connecting Piazza del Duomo with Piazza San Prospero, that you can see in the pic below


Note the ‘antique’ sign on the top left saying “Scendere dalla Bicicletta – Dismount from your bike”. The pic was taken on a market day (which is twice a week) so the passage was very busy (the second stall there sells very nice ‘Made in Italy’ socks, three pairs for 3 to 7 euros…), and even without the sign you would not really want to cycle there (although there are some older ladies who sometimes give it a try, and older people are highly represented among those who cycle in the Centro Storico in mid-morning on a market day). There are plenty of other streets very nearby to cycle between the two piazzas, so it is not really necessary to attempt to cycle through there (I did cycle through it a couple of times very late at night after all the tables from the pizzeria there had been removed, it is like an initiation rite…).

The second exception are the ‘portici’ (arcades), which go along a stretch of Via Emilia San Pietro (the third sign you can see across the arcades is the one of the Bar Pasticceria Antica Resti I mentioned above…).


Now, personally I have never really seen people cycling there (not even the older ladies I have mentioned above). At times perhaps some people cycling for not more than a couple of metres, a bit more very late at night. There are always a lot of people walking, and a lot of cafes have tables outside. However, it is a common complain that there are “ciclisti che sfrecciano sotto i portici – cyclists whizzing past under the arcades”. So, the city administration had to do something, and they installed the sign you can see above (extended to skateboarders as well, and again, I think the chance of meeting some Tony Hawk or Stacey Peralta’s disciples there are quite slim, even without the sign). I do agree on principles with a ban on cycling there, although I think it was somehow already self-regulated, but well politics is sometimes a bit of give and take. And let me add that if you stand by the street next to the arcade, you’ll see a number of drivers using their phones and not really respecting the 30kph speed limit. But well, these things even happen in a very cycling friendly city…

Importantly, since 2005, one-way systems in the Centro Storico have not applied to bicycles. That is not very common in Italy, and in nearby Bologna (where cycling share is considerably lower), the city administration recently decided to crack down on people cycling the wrong way in the city centre streets (as well as under the arcades, which cover a much larger area, about 40kms!!, in Bologna).  In Reggio Emilia, the administration decided more than 10 years ago that there was no point in asking those cycling to follow the complicated one way systems to simply stroll from one shop to another, or from one cafe to another, and they therefore decided to regularise what was a common practice already, as nobody really paid any attention to the One Way signs…

Recently, some cities in Italy also started to apply restrictions to cycling in their pedestrianised Centro Storico (sometimes large chunks of it, like in the case of Oristano in Sardinia). The same is discussed in the Netherlands as well (you can read a very interesting post by Bicycle Dutch about the case of Utrecht here). My feeling is that Reggio Emilia will certainly not follow on that, and the Centro Storico will simply remain as it is for bicycles.

But back to the arcades now. A considerably wide and shared (I think it is, but could not find a clear sign…) pavement was built a couple of years ago, narrowing the lane and removing some parking spots. It does look good (if you forget the cars parked next to it), as you can see below.

marciapiede San Pietro

Well, I guess that shared pavement must have removed any possible temptations for those people who wish to cycle under the arcades. However, parking spots in the Centro Storico have always been a contentious subject (indeed every city around the world is the same…).  So, very recently, on the relatively new pavement, and on the narrowest bit of it, where parking spaces were eliminated not simply reduced, the city administration cheekely put back some of the parking spots, well, by decree of paint….


(at least a Blue Badge spot was added as well), and the plan is to add some additional loading bays soon, using the same technique.

i padroni della strada

I conclude this post with a pic of a banner I saw attached to a number of bikes parked in the Centro Storico. It displays the Municipality logo, and says “Better by bike” with the hashtag “the road masters (or owners)”. I am not sure the hashtag would go well in the UK, where people cycling are often very unjustly (and incorrectly) accused by those driving of “riding like they own the road they had not paid for”, but the situation is better (but far from perfect, and I’ll discuss tensions in a future post) in Reggio Emilia for two main reasons, in my opinion (I am planning some research in the near future to find evidence to support my opinions…). First, almost everyone (if really not you, at least your parents or grandparents, or children) uses a bicycle. Second, bicycles mostly run on separated ways…

Well, that’s it. If you have any question, please do not hesitate to ask. And if you know the city, and have things to add or correct, please do so. Stay on these pages for the second part of this post, which I will add soon.

All the best


4 December 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





13 thoughts on “Cycling Cities: The Reggio Emilia Way – Part 1: Il Centro Storico

  1. Great post. It really makes me want to visit, especially for the coffee and cakes!
    It’s sad that the city is reducing the amenity for pedestrians and cyclists by enabling car parking on the footpath and on the narrow streets. I saw the same graffiti done in Rothenberg o.b. Tauber in an equivalent if not more historically significant town (for Germany). The town burgers must only drive cars to make such bad decisions. And yet they can’t see or won’t do anything to address the obvious lack of parking for bicycles in ER!

    Your post also reminded me of this one by Mikael Colville-Anderson about Ferrara, just over 100km away from ER:
    I like the practical little rubber handlebar protection device, which also probably stops damage to buildings. Makes me think that ring used for a bicycle lock in your post was intentionally put there.


  2. Thank you Jim.
    Indeed Ferrara and Reggio Emilia are quite similar, and bicycles are very similar in the two cities as well, and talking about Copenhagenize, I’d really like to see one of the cities on my region in Italy mentioned in their cycle-friendly city index…
    Damage to buildings is certainly an issue, and when people spend money to paint and restore their facade, they do put notices saying “please do not put your bike here” but after some people ignore them, and you start seeing marks on the wall, it is back to the initial situation again. And definitely more racks are needed, but as I said, people do not really like them and prefer more informal parking…
    Adding parking spots on the pavement is indeed bad, and my guess is that the administration is trying to give something back to city centre retail associations after having given a number of planning permission for large commercial centres outside of the Centro Storico.
    Residents also often complain about parking spaces, but very recently a new subterranean car park, only reserved to them, and to the local businesses, was opened.
    Thanks again for your comment and all the best


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