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Salva Italia: l’attacco di estetica

April 18, 2011

Landing in Bologna, my new home in Italy, I was not sorry that the plane was delayed for several more spins around the city.

Mesmerizingly, from the air Bologna appeared as a medieval medallion on a tapestry of felted jade. One could almost pick it up from the fields and study its impossible intricacies. I watched in wonder.

As if by a miracle, the city sported an abrupt urban growth boundary, immediately surrounded by what appeared to be family-based farmlands, a small collection of cultivated fields to each home. Where is the urban sprawl that houses the rest of the 400,000 some people of this metropolitan region? How did they maintain such a strong urban growth boundary? How promising! I looked forward to seeing the intricacies of that amazing-looking center below.

A bird's-eye view of the beauty of Bologna. (Source, Tango7174, wikipedia commons.)

A bird's-eye view of the beauty of Bologna. (Source, Tango7174, wikipedia commons.)

After several days here in Bologna — the second largest medieval city center in Europe (after Venice, and also once a city of canals) — one would hope il Dott. Meggs would be in love with the beauty and delighted with this way of life.

After all, the expectation indicators are strong for a place of paradise. Your Benevolent Meggsy is here at the oldest continuously operating university in the world, expressly to research and determine urban policy and actions to increase healthier, more sustainable modes of transport, and in large part thanks to my association with the World Carfree Network. Is it unreasonable to assume an enlightened, livable, relatively carfree place?

One would eagerly anticipate this jewel of the Renaissance to be an urban paradise, particularly in Italy, the land of art and culture.

Not so!

Terribly, after a short time here, my only lasting impression of place was the rumbling, droning daily earthquake, the flood of hell and metal, the charge of deadly steel ripping around each corner, charging through each tiny path, defiling every space: the endless antagonistic automobiles; the torrents of motor scooters; the deluge of diesel buses; the putrid stench of their unmitigated effluence.

Like a freight train crashing through church, like war at a wedding, attacking mercilessly; savage sloughs of speeding steel sewage spewing determined disrespect, a dragon’s blast of deadly noxious vapours; a poison cloud which lingers long after each platoon hath passed. Each CC sip of air inescapably stinking, a VOC coctail, a benzene and all admixture as if face full of a petrol pump; the explosive noise echoing cataclysmically; every air molecule buzzing stunned after shotgun blasts; as if the city were one giant, hyper raceway; as if a jackhammer the center of every living room.

How can anyone accept a life like this? Particularly here, in a paradise of urban form!

Worse, the aggressive disregard for the human being; the horn, the aggressive thrust and shove to prevent our crossing. Wouldn’t a civilised culture, one reputedly relaxed and sublime, rather roll down a window and ask politely, “scusi?” — not shoot us with the noise cannon, at point blank range? Wouldn’t its drivers choose a sensible speed, or better yet, an entirely more enlightened alternative?

Yet another speeding car cuts off a baby stroller.

Yet another speeding car cuts off a baby stroller. (Source: Jason Meggs)

True, once a platoon has passed, there can be sweet silence in these Renaissance canyons, affording enough repose to gather a very different sense of place, where the ornate beauty emerges with that temporary peace.

High above on a roof, a tree. Gently noticed, the chirp of birds. Ponder the play of light and its architects’ intent so many centuries past.

But this is mere deception, an invitation to a trap. Perhaps you have enough moments to gaze down at the patterns of stones carefully laid as pavement, swirling arches suggesting a care for beauty, if distorted from the incessant attack of…


And then they are upon us again. The people who dare venture by foot in this city, which was once a great gift for pedestrians, are now second and third class, subordinate to the mounted knights of petroleum. The men, women and children walking appear frightened, dazed, shell shocked, and hug the walls, waiting to pass, sharing but a narrow channel protected by steel posts as the raceway rules supreme.

A mother has just squeezed past a man in the narrow the walking gutter. The cars are the kings and queens here. (Jason Meggs)

A mother has just squeezed past a man in the narrow the walking gutter. The cars are the kings and queens here. (Jason Meggs)

An older couple starts on a new street, feels the sunshine on their faces, appreciates the rare quiet as the arterial they’ve left falls away, seducing them into a false sense of safety. They walk in the street away from the constricting steel posts for the sun, thinking they can share the way which is wide enough for a car to pass. Think again.

Deceptively calm, it was but a moment’s reprieve on the new street before the next attack. Without warning, without mercy, a car careens upon them and rushes to a stop a mere meter from their bodies, and promptly blasts its horn: piercing, shrieking, surely above 130 dBA, resounding off the sharp walls on every side. Hateful it seems; intended to harm. Harm it does.

I spin on my heels as if to defend and see the poor older couple hobbling to the edge of the road, their peace shattered, their place stolen. The perpetrator writhes agonised: A 40-something woman with gold hair gripping at the wheel, gnawing at the air, face contorting with ugliness, screaming to herself inside her car, eyes wild with shrieking. As soon as it’s clear she rushes past without apology, a child’s tantrum runamok as gold-encrusted spectre, roars away followed by the rumbling of more monsters, new arrivals backing up behind her box, the endless insistence without reprieve. The raceway resumes.

Look around: the walls of this ornate city are stained black from pollution, like a den of smokers, like the walls around a coal furnace.

How can this be?

Immediately my response to this assault on life is to analyse each small street in light of what I have learned: Why is there traffic here? What can be done about it? Who makes these decisions, what data is available, what policies in place?

I take a quick traffic count and estimate. This narrow alley must see more than 10,000 vehicles per day!

As a city the cumulative effects on health of such high volumes in a dense population center are staggering. Cancer, chronic stress leading to disease, hearing loss, curtailment of public freedom; and I’m told a recent inquiry estimated that the rate of injury and fatality is much higher than one would anticipate, despite the seemingly ubiquitous protections for pedestrians here including reportedly 40 km of porticoes — gorgeous covered walkways protected from traffic by stone columns and grade separation — and alleys like this one, lined with protective barriers. After all, a field lined with trenches and foxholes does not indicate a safer soldier; it indicates war.

The devil is in the surprises at intersections, explained one transport professor at DICAM Transport Engineering Group, my new workplace. Without warning, a fast vehicle will shoot around a corner; there is no way for a pedestrian to react in time. Having seen a few days’ egregious misbehaviour, and many close calls, I believe it. Is there a solution?

    Appeal to culture, pleasure, tradition.

The culture of Italians, I’m told, is aesthetic. Art dances with and seduces, bypasses reason. This is the global allure of Italy. Yet here one wonders if the Italians have lost their senses, their culture to the automobile.

Is there hope?

    Beauty is alive, resistance is smiling kindness.

Fortuitously, my first day on the town I came upon a symbolic discovery: a sidewalk vendor of historic Bolgnan treasures offered a classic book on display, carefully packaged in a protective sheath: Uomo o Automobile? (Man or Automobile?), a 1968 compilation of writings about the car and its effects.

What a find! Relatedly, there was an engrossing book on the local antifascist resistance, WWII…I’d like to read both, but is it worth 13€ to me today? (My bank was not allowing me cash, incidentally.) I ask for a discount, 10€ for both, and the vendor, an old man, smiles and objects. No, he explains, I must take them both for 8€, not my 10€ offer, let alone the 13€ posted price.

It’s a sign of hope that the power of community and the aesthetic potential of Bologna is yet alive despite the hostility of the traffic.

Then there’s the news that the EU plans to ban combustion cars from cities by 2050, grand news, although that is just a partial action on a long timeline.

How about a program to transition the motorized two-wheelers, which are arguably the biggest air and noise pollution problem, to battery and bicycle on a much shorter timeline?

How about a community-based initiative to assess the streets and propose new protections and new policies for handling traffic flow?

In any event, you couldn’t hope for a more prime natural candidate for a Carfree City, something the world is increasingly ready (and long overdue) for.

Other signs of hope: a network of trolleybuses, my favourites! — although they are a tiny minority of the many buses; but many buses means frequent transit options, even late at night; and there are occasional carfree alleys and shopping areas, where motor vehicles are finally escaped; and even some brave souls who dare ride bicycles — in fact, the mail is delivered by bike! (See photo, below.) Then there is the fresh produce from local farms, the secret spaces from centuries past (catacombs included, both below and above ground) and the friendliness of those you meet — in public — those who are not grimacing at the wheel. Oh, and much of the sprawl is in dense corridors, although it continues to grow. It just wasn’t apparent from the plane that morning.

Mail is delivered by bicycle! (Jason Meggs)

Mail is delivered by bicycle! (Jason Meggs)

Local produce in markets near the grand plaza (Jason Meggs).

Local produce in markets near the grand plaza (Jason Meggs).

Meggs ponders the relative peace of a market alley. (Jason Meggs)

Meggs ponders the relative peace of a market alley. (Jason Meggs)

Stay tuned as Your Meggsy investigates and considers solutions to make this diamond in the rough the happy, healthy gem it could be.

Lastly, for the “bicycle crazies,” you might enjoy this article (translated and original).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2011 6:21 am

    Much has happened in the roughly two months (not counting times away) I’ve been in Bologna. Although I know much less about the City than I would have hoped, I’ve learned a lot and a constant focus on air and noise pollution is ever present, by necessity as it dominates the public space. That, and the callous and cruel aggressive drivers.

    At first, the only response with people I raised this with was, “It will never change.”

    Cultural excuses such as, “Italians are slow to change, and are not forward thinking” were told to me (by Italians). How, then, did the radical change of dominance by the automobile take place? The excuse didn’t seem to add up. Even some activists said it was hopeless, and emphasized that Bolognans were more interested in economic opportunity than health concerns, even if there was a direct link with economic benefits and both reducing pollution and transitioning to alternative transport.

    Since then, more allies and signs of hope have emerged. I have learned much more of official efforts to abate pollution and promote alternatives. A doctor commiserated that Bologna is “the land of pollution.” And remarkable stories of the history of bicycle culture have emerged, along with more and more networking with folks on two wheels, from all walks (wheels) of life. Evidently the older generation bicycled and continues to do so. Once there were flocks of cyclists in the main plaza, talking politics with one hand and pushing a scorcher in the other. In summers, when heat was blazing (upwards of 46C (115F!), a tradition was to head into the hills and sleep in fields, then speed down into town for work in the morning.

    Recently, a new mayor was elected, reportedly a bicyclist. Evidently one of his first actions was the elimination of 1300 permits to drive in the Center. “They can take the bus!” Bologna has tremendous bus transit coverage with frequent headways during the school year.

    Now that school is out and vacation season (and hot hot hot season) begins, the pollution levels are decidedly improving. When I first arrived, the pollution was so thick I could see the clouds and felt like I was in a swarm of jackhammers. Then add a thousand lit cigarettes buzzing like wasps all about.

    Now traffic is much lighter and the city is finally becoming peaceful enough to enjoy. Rain helps.

    This morning I could perceive the cloud as I approached two arterials while walking. It was paced at 50 meters, the felt change when the nice outdoors feeling transitioned to that “you’ve just entered an auto-body shop where solvents and paints are being used” smell. It was as stark as the feeling one gets when swimming and passing from a clear hot water section to a cold water section. Much research focuses on the safe distance from major roadways, but the studies are rarely complex enough to capture anything like real exposure. Heard about a Bologna-specific study in which it was found that the protected pedestrianpaths (Porticoes), covered walkways elevated from the street, actually capture and compound pollution (and I think, noise) because of their aerodynamics. Ironic, no?

    Wishing once again for sampling equipment.

  2. August 12, 2011 6:28 am

    It is mid-August, and worth mentioning that this must be the nicest time of year. At night it’s as if it’s a carfree city! There is essentially no traffic. It’s a “ghost town.” One can waltz down the middle of the main arterials, a complete reversal!

    Traditionally everyone goes to the beach due to the extreme heat. But this year, thanks to unusual weather patterns, it’s actually temperate, with refreshing warm evenings.

    The difference in oppression from pollution, the near absence of noise, air, light and vibration pollution, is absolutely remarkable. We walk around and notice things never seen before. We feel completely different, more at peace, more continuity with our thoughts and feelings.

    The experience of the city is totally different. We can and need to live more like this all the time!

  3. October 16, 2011 3:53 am


    are you still in Bologna? i am visiting from Portland, Oregon on a research fellowship (only one week, alas). do you have a connection with the cycling community?

    Rex Burkholder
    Metro Councilor, Portland, Oregon

    • October 16, 2011 8:40 am

      Ciao Rex,

      Great to hear from you, a fellow Portlander. 🙂

      Let me know when you are coming, it would be an honor to help.

      Of course I’m interested to know more about your research!


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