When Bologna became the first major Italian city to impose a speed limit of 30 kilometers, or 20 miles per hour, Luca Mazzoli, a local taxi driver, posted a sign in his cab warning passengers of the change.
He had to, he said grumpily the other day, “explain why I’m driving so slowly.”
Since the limit became enforceable in mid-January, it has taken Mr. Mazzoli longer to get from point A to point B, he argued, meaning he has taken fewer passengers and found himself stuck in traffic more often.
“A city has to move,” he said.
Critics of the measure say Bologna is at risk of stalling as it became the first major Italian city to join a growing group of municipalities, including Amsterdam. Bilbao, Spain; Brussels; and Lyon, France, which lowered speed limits from 50 kilometers per hour, to about 30 miles per hour, in the belief that the change will lead to safer, healthier and more sustainable cities.
The mayor of Bologna, Matteo Lepore, included the new speed limit in the campaign promises that helped him get elected in 2021. Referring to the lower limit, he said: “Driving at 30 is part of a vision for a more democratic and more sustainable use of public space’, where neighborhoods put children and seniors first and investments favor bike lanes and public transport to work towards carbon neutrality.
What’s more, he added during an interview in his art-filled City Hall office, Italian cities had been built over centuries and were ill-suited for an abundance of cars.
There is also the issue of security. Lower speeds led to fewer deaths, Mr Lepore said, noting that there were about 60 road-related deaths in the greater Bologna area in 2022. “Given this, it is difficult to argue that the use of private cars should be without limits ” he said.
But convincing the locals was a difficult journey. Bologna is the capital of a region that is home to the makers of some of the fastest and flashiest cars in the world, including Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani.
There have been protests, both in the streets and on social media (memes and all), and a petition to hold a referendum on the new speed limit has garnered just over 53,000 signatures.
The petition was started by Guendalina Furini, a student at the University of Bologna who was concerned that her daily 25-mile commute into the city would increase significantly. He said the new limit was “difficult to maintain” and would ultimately deter people from visiting Bologna because the risk of getting a ticket was so high.
“The city is at risk of losing out,” he said.
Other protesters said the real safety risk was having to pay attention to the speed limit on the dashboard, which meant eyes weren’t on the road.
“People are very angry,” said Giorgio Gorza, who heads a citizens’ group organizing protests. To make matters worse, he added, the enforcement of the speed limit coincided with traffic delays from construction work on new tram lines in the city, as well as a detour in the city center after one of Bologna’s signature towers was blocked.
A protest on Tuesday night brought several dozen frantic citizens and taxis to the streets, where they drove at a snail’s pace in an impromptu parade, honking their horns and snarling traffic. The new speed limit “is impossible” to drive, said Mr Gorza, an organizer of the protest.
“It’s like standing still, and nobody’s taking a car if you’re going to stand still, if it takes longer than walking,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s absurd.”
The outcry was unexpected for the city’s centre-right opposition, which has opened protests ahead of June’s European Union elections and on Monday called for a referendum on the limit.
Opposition unrest was fueled by Italy’s transport minister, Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right League party, who called the Bologna limit “absurd”. Last week, Mr. Salvini signed an executive order challenging a city’s right to impose a blanket 30km/h limit, arguing, among other things, that restrictions should be decided on a street-by-street basis. Legal experts have debated the weight the directive could have on a city’s decisions, and the dispute could play out in court.
Bologna City Hall responded to the directive by noting in a statement that its speed limits were in line with current national legislation. “Our priority is road safety and people’s quality of life,” the statement said.
Mr. Lepore noted during the interview that the new limit only affected 70 percent of the city, with the rest of the streets maintaining 50 or 70 km/h limits. He said the city was open to “fixes” on the speed limit, but not before a monitoring period.
In the first two weeks, only 25 speeding tickets had been issued, according to City Hall. At this stage, “We are more about informing than imposing fines,” Mr. Lepore said.
In 2021, Olbia, in Sardinia, became the first Italian city to set a broad limit of 30 kilometers per hour. And there the initial reactions were harsh, Mayor Settimo Nizzi recalled.
“But it is right for a mayor to think about the quality of life of his citizens,” Mr Nizzi said. For months, officials have been working with residents to extol the benefits of a more walkable city, “to get them used to this new lifestyle,” he added.
Walking “is much better for you,” Mr. Nizzi noted, and now people in Olbia “are happier.”
In Bologna, there are signs that the limit is already having an impact. According to the city, traffic accidents dropped 21 percent in the first two weeks since the new limit went into effect, compared to the same period last year, which included one fatality. None of the accidents this year have been fatal, according to a city statement issued last week.
Mr. Lepore also said that he is confident that the positive effects of his measure will soon become apparent.
“It won’t take long for people to understand that it was the right choice,” he said.