In Ferrara, a historical focus on bicycling

Christine Grimando, a town planner from York, Maine and an Urban and Regional Policy Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, recently completed travel to the UK and Italy. Ms. Grimando’s research focuses on how planners might identify best practices for sustainable urban places across a range of scales. Her travel explored how smaller cities and towns, largely unexamined, in aggregate comprising a vast amount of urban land area, people and infrastructure, implemented innovative urban sustainability initiatives, with particular emphasis on spatial planning projects and the integration of sustainability policies with placemaking. Her bases for this project were Totnes, in the region of Devon in England, and Ferrara, in the region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. Each of these innovating places represents an understudied scale of place, and both have developed comprehensive, integrated approaches to sustainable urbanism. This is the third of several updates from her trip.


Though less renowned than larger European counterparts, Ferrara, Italy, enjoys some of the highest percentages of total trips by bicycle on the continent. In fact, this percentage–30.7%–brings it far ahead of any other Italian city, and means the city is first to appear, at number ten, in a list by copenhagenize.com, of top bicycling cities outside of the bicycling leaders in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany. By contrast, Portland, Oregon, perhaps the most heralded city for cycling policy and culture in the United States, has a total trip by bicycle percentage below 10%. Talk to the citizens of Ferrara, and they will outline the bicycle’s long history in the city, as if to imply they do not need the bicycle to become topical for them to take to their bikes. But then, many places—including much of Italy—at one point relied on bicycles during their history, and many of these cities do not rank anywhere close to Ferrara. What conditions exist in Ferrara that are missing elsewhere?

Ferrara’s trajectory to a cycling city is an unusual one, and involved a mixture of historic precedent and political will. In 1991 the city discovered, through the release of national statistics on modal splits, that it had vastly more trips by bicycle than other Italian cities, and began a campaign to protect, encourage, and capitalize on cycling as a continuing viable means of transportation and selling point for tourism. Officials established a city bicycle office and launched numerous promotional programs, such as the Bicicard, which allowed tourists to leave their cars outside the historic center and change over to a free bicycle, with reduced admissions to tourist attractions and city discounts bundled with it.

Most importantly, the formation of a bicycle plan outlining best practices for bicycle policy means the city takes bicycles seriously. In my discussions with city planners and with the local public transportation authority, a few broad brush stroke points were repeatedly emphasized: promote the culture of cycling, both for the sake of tourism, and for the cultural identity of residents; gather data on common routes and accidents before making improvements, so that infrastructure investments in the face of scarce budgets could be prioritized; and, cycling must be convenient and easy, and at least as fast as using an automobile, for ridership to be maintained or induced.

As for making bicycling convenient and easy, one component of convenience that pre-dates Ferrara’s cycling self-consciousness by decades: much of the historic center of the city is car free (or nearly, with some well-regulated exceptions). Bike paths and lanes begin at the edge of this area, and continue outward until the city turns into countryside. At that point separated infrastructure ends again, but routes for the recreational cyclist to the River Po and beyond are well-signed. The center functions like one large woonerf, with cyclists and pedestrians clearly dominating public space. Taxis, buses, and any cars move slowly and defer to bicycle movement through the area.

This traffic hierarchy inversion is striking, especially in the range of the population comfortably converging on the central streets and squares of Ferrara – the very young and the very old are common sites. The gender balance and representation of the full economic spectrum are also striking. For instance, the quality of bicycles ranges from old workhorses that have circulated for decades to shiny new models equipped with fine leather. Long distance, recreational cyclists pass through central Ferrara in neon and spandex, as the city is on cycle-tourism routes, and welcomes the full spectrum of cyclist in its own branding of itself as a bicycle friendly destination. The cyclists that dominate the central city–often in boggling throngs unseen in the United States–are local residents doing improbable errands, socializing, and heading to work on their sturdy bicycles.

The manifold benefits of cycling – economic, public health, environmental – are increasingly well documented. What has not gotten very much attention to date is its role in a vibrant civic life, an aspect on constant, prominent display in Ferrara. The other facets of our urban places necessary to make cycling functional – land use, density, comprehensive transportation planning, urban design – are so far reaching that conditions that make cycling successful implicate places as a whole. With so many consequences of cycling, and so many dimensions of city planning implicated to make it viable, I have come to see a cycling hot spot as a reliable indicator of a place functioning well, or a place of far reaching, sizable ambition. The embrace of bicycling as a means of transportation by all of the able population is not a state that can exist in the midst of other less functional elements of our built environment. At the same time, I have come to see a place that is earnestly trying to increase the role of bicycles in its day to day life as a place worth watching, as they will necessarily have to grapple with pressing questions about what sustainability means, and have to make difficult choices about how we arrange ourselves on the face of the earth.

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About Christine Grimando

Christine Grimando has been an urban planner in New England for the previous six years, and is currently the Town Planner for York, Maine. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Masters in Urban Planning from Columbia University, and a Masters in Geography from Clark University. She was an Urban and Regional Policy Fellow in 2012. Ms. Grimando’s research focuses on how planners might identify best practices for sustainable urban places across a range of scales