March 4, 2024

Elisabetta Povoledo

When Bologna became the first major Italian city to impose a speed limit of 30 kilometres, or 20 miles, an hour, Luca Mazzoli, a local taxi driver, posted a sign in his cab warning passengers of the change.

He had to, he said the other day, “to explain why I am driving so slowly.”

Since the limit became enforceable in mid-January, it has taken longer for Mazzoli to get from Point A to Point B, he claimed, meaning that he has picked up fewer passengers and has found himself stuck in traffic more often.

“A city has to move,” he said.

Critics of the measure say that Bologna risks slowing to a standstill since it became the first major Italian city to join a growing group of municipalities, including Amsterdam; Bilbao, Spain; Brussels; and Lyon, France, that have lowered speed limits from 50 kilometres per hour, about 30 miles per hour, in the belief that the change will lead to safer, healthier and more livable cities.

Bologna’s mayor, Matteo Lepore, included the new speed limit among the campaign promises that helped to get him elected in 2021. Referring to the lower limit, he said, “Driving at 30 is part of a vision of a more democratic and more sustainable use of public space,” where neighbourh­oods put children and older people first, and investments flavor bike paths and public transportation to work toward carbon neutrality. What’s more, he added during an interview in his art-filled office in City Hall, Italian cities had been built over centuries and were unsuited for a glut of automobiles.

There is also the question of safety. Slower speeds made for fewer deaths,  Lepore said, noting that there had been about 60 traffic-related fatalities in the greater Bologna area in 2022. “Given that, it’s hard to argue that the use of private cars should be without limits,” he said.

But persuading the locals has been a bumpy ride. Bologna is the capital of a region that is home to the makers of some of the fastest and most glamorous cars in the world, including Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani.

There have been protests, both on the streets and on social media (memes and all), and a petition to hold a referendum on the new speed limit has accumulated just over 53,000 signatures.

The petition was begun by Guendalina Furini, a student at the University of Bologna who was concerned that her daily 25-mile commute into the city would increase substantially. She said that the new limit was “difficult to maintain” and would eventually deter people from visiting Bologna because the risk of getting a ticket was so high. “The city risks losing out,” she said. Other protesters said that the real safety risk was having to pay attention to the speed limit on the dashboard, which meant that eyes were not on the road.

“People are very angry,” said Giorgio Gorza, who heads a citizen’s group that has been organising protests. To make things worse, he added, the enforcement of the speed limit has coincided with traffic delays from construction work on new tram lines around the city, as well as a detour downtown after one of Bologna’s distinctive towers had to be cordoned off.

A protest on Tuesday evening brought many dozens of cranky citizens and cabbies to the streets, where they drove at a snail’s pace in a makeshift parade, loudly honking horns and snarling traffic. The new speed limit “is impossible” to drive at, said Gorza, an organiser of the protest. “It’s like standing still, and no one takes a car if you’re going to stay still, if it takes longer than walking,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “It’s illogical.”

The discontent has been a windfall for the city’s centre-right opposition, which has jumped on the protests ahead of European Union elections in June, and on Monday called for a referendum on the limit. The opposition’s jibes have been amplified by the Italian transport minister, Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right League party, who has called the Bologna limit “senseless.”

The flip side

The move has garnered protests on the streets and social media

A petition to hold a referendum on the new speed limit has over 53,000 signatures

Protesters say real safety risk is having to pay attention to the speed limit on the dashboard, which meant that eyes were not on the road

However, city data shows traffic accidents were down 21% in the first two weeks of the new limit coming into force

©2023 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Feb 09 2024 | 12:00 AM IST