After 30 straight days of unhealthy levels of smog last December, Milan temporarily banned cars from the city center and offered discount “anti-smog” tickets on public transport. Now the city hopes to take another step to get people out of cars more permanently—by paying commuters who choose to ride a bike.
“We want to focus the public opinion on the fact that moving by bike is much healthier for them and for the city,” says Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan’s mobility councillor.
It’s not the first government to try handing out cash to cyclists. France tested a pilot program in 2014, and smaller towns have tested “reverse tolls” for pedestrians and cyclists. Belgium, the Netherlands, and the U.K. have all also tried paying commuters to bike, at rates equivalent to about 30 cents a mile, tax-free.
Milan is studying all of the options. “We are planning to do something similar,” says Maran. “To give direct money to those who go to work by bike, or to give them some other sustainable-mobility incentive.”
Even though there’s an obvious cost involved, Maran argues that it makes sense to encourage people to bike the same way that the government supports options such as public transport. “If we look at mobility all together, for example, even half of the cost of public transport is contributed by national funds,” he says. “So we will give a little money as an incentive for citizens to know that cycling is healthier than cars, and can be a good alternative in a flat city like Milan.”
Milan’s geography also means that the city is especially likely to suffer from smog. Because it’s in a valley, air pollution often gets trapped in the city. This winter has been especially dry and warm, making the smog worse—a pattern that’s likely to continue as climate change intensifies. Milan is already routinely ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the EU.
It’s not clear how well a cycling incentive like this will work. In the French experiment, out of more than 8,000 employees who participated, only around 400 actually switched to a bike. Milan—with some of the worst traffic in Europe—is a city addicted to cars.
But Maran says old patterns are already changing. After the city added 50% more bike lanes over the last few years, and more than doubled the number of bike-share stations, more people are riding. Drivers in the city center have to pay a congestion charge, and in response, 20% more people started using public transport over the last four years. The city is slowly expanding a car-free zone in the middle of the city. Paying people to bike on its own may not make a huge difference, but it’s part of a larger plan that does seem to be working.
“Something is changing in the behavior of citizens,” says Maran. “We want to help it change faster.”