Italy Offers €500 Subsidy for Bicycles and E-Scooters

The goal is to avoid putting more cars on already-clogged streets.

cyclists near the Colosseum in Rome
Cyclists near the Colosseum in Rome.

@TatianaMara via Twenty20 

Italy announced earlier this summer that it would offer a hefty subsidy to anyone wanting to buy a bicycle. People living in cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants are eligible to receive €500 ($600) toward the purchase of a new bicycle or e-scooter. 

This announcement, made at the end of May by transport minister Paola Micheli, is part of the country's €55 billion support package designed to boost Italy's economy after its devastation by the pandemic. Italy was one of the first countries outside of China to be hit hard and to enforce extensive lockdown rules. 

Shaken by the experience, many Italians (along with others around the world) have expressed reluctance to use public transit as normal life slowly resumes. And with its cramped, historic cities and narrow cobblestone streets already jammed full of traffic, having even more Italians commute by car would be a recipe for disaster.

The new subsidy is accompanied by an initiative to expand bicycle lanes throughout Italian cities, which is smart. The Brussels Times reported, "City representatives of the country’s capital, Rome, announced on Monday that it would create 150 kilometres [93 miles] of new cycling paths by September." A similar project in Milan called "Strade Aperte" (or Open Roads) has been switching 35 kilometres [22 miles] of urban streets to temporary bicycle lanes and widened sidewalks. Hopefully these will become permanent, once residents realize how helpful they are.

But subsidies alone are unlikely to convince Italians that it's worth hopping on a bike. Residents of Rome, in particular, are wary of bikes, as described in New Mobility:

"Previous bicycle projects in the city failed because Romans showed no interest at all. They found bicycles too heavy, too dangerous, too hot, too slow, or too unhandy so that the scarce cycle paths that were built became parking places again in no time at all. Companies that had been running loan bike programs in recent years also pulled out in record time because their bikes were almost exclusively loved by thieves who sold the loose parts to hardware stores."

Furthermore, it's estimated that there are over "50,000 holes in Roman roads," which is why only 1% of all journeys in the city are made by bicycle, according to a 2017 report by Greenpeace (via New Mobility).

As Gianluca Santili, president of the study center Osservatorio Bikeconomy, explained, there needs to be a major cultural shift. "150 km of cycle paths is not enough to get Romans on their bikes." They will need campaigns showing that life is better on a bike, that with a bicycle, "you no longer have parking problems and, therefore, less stress. That cycling is healthier than the car and the scooter, and above all: that they can save up to €3,000 [$3,580] a year on gasoline, road tax, and insurances."

Some Italians also need to believe that it doesn't look bad to ride a bicycle. Fifteen years later, I'm still mildly bitter about the fact that my Italian host parents refused to let me ride a bike to school because they worried what the neighbors would think, "that we're not taking care of you properly. Non si fa. It just isn't done." The old-world hang-ups about appearance were endearing only until they started to jeopardize my health and sanity.

Change can happen quickly, however, especially when a country has emerged from a traumatic event. Rome wasn't built in a day, but it did burn in nine, so there's really no telling what's possible.