Milan Urban On two wheels

Mobike comes to Milan. BikeMi stays.

Milan is not a bike city. Maybe 2% of all traffic are done by bike. Bike lanes are sparse in the center, badly maintained in the outskirts, and often not thought through to the end. At occasions, I will talk about this problem on my blog. But at least the government has the ambition to change that.

As a side note, I’d like to state that Milan is also not a car city. Streets in the center are narrow and follow a complex layout, parking is a massive problem (parking on pedestrian paths is not allowed, but generally tolerated, because there’s just not enough space), traffic in rush hour gets predictably heavy… Milan is a city in which many people use the car, but a car city it is not. If at all, it’s a scooter city. Or a pedestrian city. Or a kick scooter city, but virtually no one uses those. (I’ve been toying with the idea for a while.)

Despite not being big on bike, Milan has a rather active road bike scene, a surprisingly comprehensive set of bike routes in the Hinterland (that’s the official Lombardian term to denote the surroundings of Milan – most people don’t know the military origin of the name), and a rather well-accepted bike sharing systemBikeMi is around for almost ten years and supplies more than 5,000 bikes (1,000 of them electric) in the city via its 280 stations. “Rather well-accepted” means that it is used by about 45,000 to 50,000 subscribers. Milan has a population of 1.3 million.

I honestly did not realize the scope of what is going to happen this fall in Milan until I looked up BikeMi’s numbers. Mobike is coming to Italy and will start to operate its free floating bike sharing service in Florence and Milan. Mobike is a Chinese startup and the principle is that a bike can be parked anywhere, just like a conventional car sharing. The new scheme is supposed to run experimentally for three years, and Mobike intends to provide Milan with 12,000 bicycles. 12,000. That more than triples the capacity of bike sharing in the city as compared with today.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cycling-related infrastructure developments, and every new cyclist will help Milan become less congested. But I have some doubts in this case.

(1) The infrastructure is not ready. The number of available bikes does not increase the number of parking spots for bikes. It does not improve the surface of roads, and it does not widen the space between curbs and tram rails.

(2) Bikes might not be stolen due to the inbuilt GPS, but someone has to maintain 12,000 bicycles. Given the conditions of road surfaces in the city center (no potholes, but these historic – read: archaic – pavée stones), life time will be shorter than what Mobike experiences in China. The car sharing fleets suffer from the same problem. And Chinese bike sharing companies like Mobike don’t have exactly the best reputation when it comes to stewardship for their bikes.

(3) Bikes should not be parked everywhere. But bikes will be parked everywhere. In specific areas, I can see a total chaos.

(4) Milan is a very centristic city. In the morning, everything flows in the center, and in the evening, everything flows out. For car sharing, this implies that after 19:00/7:00pm, it becomes incredibly difficult to find a car in the city center, as most of the fleet is stuck in the outskirts. BikeMi’s actively managed station-based system is a warranty that in central parts of the city there will always be some supply.

Being from Berlin, I remember that its bike sharing scheme was converted from free-floating to station-based because free-floating didn’t work. And just this week I’ve read an article which discusses how Amsterdam got completely overwhelmed by a wild growth of free-floating bike sharing schemes. The article points at Dublin as an example where local government has taken active measures against free-floating bike sharing.

Hence, I do believe it is a noteworthy development, but I completely share the criticism brought forward by incumbent BikeMi. It seems to come with some coolness factor, which alone might help to get some young wanna-be hipsters on bikes. But Milan’s city council would be best advised to keep an eye on this development. There needs to be some oversight, and it will need some measures on the side.

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