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Monday, 14 July 2008
Notes from Italy

It seems like I've been away from my blog for a long time - and yes, it's been more than a couple weeks since I even checked in. But my absence was for a good cause: a trip to Italy, with lots of biking there (I brought my Dahon folder, which fits easily into a couple suitcases for air travel) and now some impressions to pass along.

My trip took me to several northern Italian cities: first to Modena, home of fabled tenor Luciano Pavarotti, almost equally fabled soprano Mirella Freni, and oddly fabled, expensive, gas-guzzling Maserati, whose headquarters are not far from downtown. Modena's population is about 177,000, and I'll bet the figure includes about 40,000 regular cyclists. As in many European communities, regular Modenites in huge numbers get around by bike, doing the shopping, dropping around to the caffe/café, going on dates (two per bike, and not on tandems), and otherwise getting through the day. If you wander the deliciously narrow and pedestrian-friendly streets and alleyways of the old parts of town, you see hundreds of bikes locked up everywhere. The bikes tend to be utilitarian, affordable models, some of them decades old and well-worn. (It's only out in countryside, on the beautiful but narrow ancient roadways, that you see helmeted, bright-jerseyed riders on fancy road bikes.) Partly for economic reasons, and helped along by a human-scaled urbanscape and bike-friendly traditions, Italians depend heavily on appropriate transport technology.

The principle held true for two other communities I visited: the small city of Vignola, the mid-sized Parma, and sizable Bologna (ca. 400,000 people in the urban core). I recommend all three to bikers and walkers - again, it's the traditional urbanscape that makes the difference. Bologna, with plenty of piazzas and 38 km of "arcades," i.e. Gothic-arched covered walkways, is especially attractive to pedestrians. I think this town's Renaissance and Baroque architects could teach our RenSquare planners a thing or three. (And isn't it odd that not long ago, Rochester was courting Parma interests for a deal to redevelop Midtown Plaza - without so much as considering the physical features that makes the city of Parma a resounding success?)

Not that Italy is a total Paradiso for bikers. At least in the Emilia Romagna region that I toured, the secondary highways are miserably clogged with trucks and cars moving at excessive speed, and there's precious little space for bikers or pedestrians. But in town, everything's rosy: ample bike paths and lanes, urban traffic that's respectful of cyclists, and an official commitment to alternative transportation. Modena also has begun a bike-borrowing/rental program. You just put down a deposit and get a key, then access publicly-owned bikes at any number of parking stations around town. There's no fee for the first three days - perfect for travelers, though I must say the bikes themselves are a little stodgy in design, not suitable for serious riding.

Well, I'm now coping with transpo-culture shock. I went to the Rochester Public Market last Saturday, as usual, and did a few errands. Amazing how few bikes you see around the market (I counted about a dozen), considering the huge turnout (thousands on- or just off-site) on a Saturday morning. Part of this is the durability of the Auto Craze, part is the result of the Rochester's failure to create the infrastructure that would seduce people into going to the market by bike. Why, the city only recently added another parking lot, this one on Railroad St. And still - as any competent traffic planner should have foreseen - the cars and "light trucks" jam the access roads and turn the market grounds into ground zero for air pollution and conflicts with mere persons who make such daring, self-indulgent moves as trying to cross a street! Maybe RocBikers (check out, by the way), joined by Critical Massers and others, should target the market for some kind of actions. City Hall shouldn't be allowed to ignore or downplay bike issues any longer. (I note with pleasure the departure of Dumbass Supremo Steve Minarik, the Republican boss who did something to offend everyone - and did everything to maintain the status quo that barely acknowledges alternative transport. Not that I expect M's replacement will be much better.)

One last note: Italian towns also are home to vast numbers of motorbikes and scooters. This was especially evident in Bologna. But the odd thing is, I didn't hear any straight-pipe monstrosities like those that take over Rochester-area roads every summer. Interpret that as you will.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 08:17 EDT
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