When Bologna became the first major Italian city to impose a speed limit of 30 kilometers or 20 miles per hour, Luca Mazzoli, a local taxi driver, posted a sign on his taxi warning passengers of the change.
He had to do it, he said grumpily the other day, “to explain why I drive so slowly.”
Since the limit went into effect in mid-January, Mr. Mazzoli has taken longer to get from point A to point B, he said, meaning he has picked up fewer passengers and been stuck in traffic more often. .
“A city has to move,” he said.
Critics of the move say Bologna risks stagnating since it became the first major Italian city to join a growing group of municipalities, including Amsterdam; Bilbao, Spain; Brussels; and Lyon, France, which have reduced speed limits from 50 kilometers per hour to approximately 30 miles per hour, believing that the change will lead to safer, healthier and more livable cities.
The mayor of Bologna, Matteo Lepore, included the new speed limit among the campaign promises that contributed to his election in 2021. Referring to the lower limit, he said: “Driving at 30 is part of a vision of more democratic use and more “sustainable public space”, where neighborhoods prioritize children and seniors, and investments favor bike paths and public transport to work towards carbon neutrality.
What’s more, he added during an interview in his art-filled office at City Hall, Italian cities had been built over centuries and were not suited to an excess of automobiles.
There is also the question of security. Slower speeds led to fewer deaths, Lepore said, noting that there were around 60 traffic-related deaths in the Bologna metropolitan area in 2022. “Given that, it is difficult to argue that the use of private cars should be unlimited. ” he said.
But persuading locals has been a bumpy road. Bologna is the capital of a region that is home to the makers of some of the world’s fastest and most glamorous cars, including Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani.
There have been protests, both in the streets and on social media (with memes and all), and a petition to hold a referendum on the new speed limit has amassed just over 53,000 signatures.
The petition was started by Guendalina Furini, a student at the University of Bologna who was concerned that her daily 40 kilometer commute to the city would increase substantially. She said the new limit was “difficult to maintain” and would eventually discourage people from visiting Bologna because the risk of getting a ticket was too high.
“The city runs the risk of losing out,” he said.
Other protesters said the real safety risk was having to pay attention to the speed limit on the dashboard, which meant eyes were not on the road.
“People are very angry,” said Giorgio Gorza, who heads a citizens group that has been organizing protests. To make matters worse, he added, the implementation of the speed limit coincided with traffic delays due to construction work on new tram lines in the city, as well as a detour in the center after one of the distinctive towers of Bologna had to be cordoned off.
A protest Tuesday afternoon brought dozens of cranky citizens and taxi drivers onto the streets, where they drove at a snail’s pace in an impromptu parade, honking horns and snarling traffic. “It’s impossible” to drive with the new speed limit, said Gorza, one of the protest organizers.
“It’s like standing still, and no one takes a car if you’re going to stand still, if it takes longer than walking,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It’s illogical”.
The discontent has been a windfall for the city’s center-right opposition, which joined protests ahead of European Union elections in June, and on Monday called for a referendum on the boundary.
The opposition’s jibes have been amplified by Italian Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, who has called the Bologna limit “meaningless.” Last week, Salvini signed a directive that questioned a city’s right to impose a blanket limit of 30 kilometers per hour, arguing, among other things, that restrictions should be decided on a street-by-street basis. Legal experts have been debating the weight the directive could have on a city’s decisions, and the dispute could end up in court.
Bologna City Council responded to the directive by noting in a statement that its speed limits were in line with current national legislation. “Our priority is road safety and people’s quality of life,” the statement says.
Lepore noted during the interview that the new limit affected only 70 percent of the city, and that the remaining roads maintained limits of 50 or 70 kilometers per hour. He said the city was open to “corrections” to the speed limit, but not before a monitoring period.
According to the City Council, only 25 speeding tickets had been issued during the first two weeks. In this phase, “it’s more about reporting than imposing fines,” Lepore said.
In 2021, Olbia in Sardinia became the first Italian city to establish a broad limit of 30 kilometers per hour. There too the initial reactions were harsh, recalled Mayor Settimo Nizzi.
“But it is right for a mayor to think about the quality of life of his citizens,” Nizzi said. For months, officials worked with residents to extol the benefits of a more walkable, bike-friendly city, “to get them used to this new lifestyle,” she added.
Walking “is much better for you,” Nizzi said, and now people in Olbia “are happier.”
In Bologna there are signs that the limit is already having an effect. According to the city, traffic accidents decreased 21 percent in the first two weeks after the new limit went into effect, compared to the same period last year, when there was one death. None of this year’s accidents have been fatal, according to a city statement issued last week.
Lepore said he was also confident that the positive results of his move would soon become evident.
“It won’t take long for people to understand that it was the right choice,” he said.