One thing a flat city does promote, however, is the use of bicycles. City bikes have been absolutely indispensable to Milanese life for generations. In that way, the Milanese are a lot like Japan’s dyed-in-the-wool Tokyoites going everywhere on their mamachari bicycles. In the last few decades, however, there has been such a dramatic increase in passenger vehicle traffic and worsening of the air quality in Milan that it has disrupted the balance the city once had between cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.
So here we are in Milan, the fashion capital of the world. You’re probably picturing a place where chic Milanese ride around gracefully on the latest, most stylish bicycles.
The biggest sellers at Milanese bicycle shops are junky rides that look like they’re about to fall apart any minute. Milan also has a serious problem with bicycle theft, so the locals make a point to own the most inconspicuous bicycles possible—ones they’ll hardly miss even if they get stolen.
The Milanese relationship with bicycles has been gradually changing. If you wander around the city these days, you’ll notice the shared bikes. People download a special bike-sharing app on their phones and use it to find nearby shared bikes. They start using them, and when they’re done they lock them up and essentially abandon them.
Milan has started to restrict the number of cars allowed into the downtown area in recent years with a congestion charge, which has led to the expansion of car-sharing services as well. You can see the city changing before your eyes. On the rare occasion that you do enter Milan in passenger vehicle, you discover that what was formerly street parking has now become designated residential spaces or disappeared entirely. Because it’s become so inconvenient to take a personal car into the city, it’s clear where things are headed. With the downtown area saturated with vehicle traffic, people are now being forced to change their daily habits.
I frequently make use of car-sharing services, but I have yet to try bike sharing. I think both of them are wonderful, groundbreaking programs. Generally speaking, there are two types of car- and bike-sharing systems. The first type to come on the scene has designated stations where you pick up bikes and drop them off. The second type eliminates the stations and lets you abandon the bicycle wherever you like.
You’ll find those shared bikes in all kinds of conditions. They might be blown over by the wind, but you’ll see them laying on their sides, or abandoned in some ridiculously out-of-the-way place where the next person will never find them. You’ll also find them broken or tossed aside with twisted handlebars, looking like they’ve been laying there untouched for weeks. Car-sharing systems and the bike-sharing systems that use stations seem to involve more attentive servicing, so I personally am a bit apprehensive about using the abandon-anywhere programs. It seems like they still have some problems to work out in terms of improving the service aspect.
The city of Milan has been actively working to put in more bike lanes in recent years. I hope that by reducing air pollution, making the roads easy to travel, having well-serviced shared bikes, and not having to worry about theft will maximize the benefits of using bicycles to get around and allow people to get the most out of healthy urban living.