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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 17:46 GMT
Questions loom large in Italian smog
Car-free road with cyclist in Milan
Can Italians be persuaded to leave their cars at home?
By the BBC's Frances Kennedy in Rome

As smog hangs thick over northern cities, Italians have embarked on a desperate quest for cleaner air.

But there is also talk of a kind of cultural revolution - of changing lifestyles and luring Italians out of their cars.

Under emergency measures taking effect on Tuesday, drivers in Milan and other cities across the wealthy Lombardy region will only be allowed to use their cars every other day.

Old people have been told to stay inside, parents not to use pushchairs, people with bronchial diseases to leave town, and joggers to keep fit some other way

The measures, which are also being applied in cities in Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, are a response to the long and dry cold spell that has sent pollution levels in northern Italian cities soaring, in some cases to four times above the alarm level.

If these steps fail to bring down the level of pollutants and there is no rainfall, Milan may face a total ban on private cars on a working day later this week.

For a city with an estimated 800,000 commuters, the implications are staggering.

The "emergenza smog," as it is dubbed, has been a headline story in all national newspaper and TV news bulletins for two weeks.

Old people have been told to stay inside, parents not to use pushchairs because they place children at exhaust pipe level, people with bronchial diseases to leave town, and joggers to keep fit some other way.

But there is growing talk about the need for people to change their lifestyles.

Ending the Italians' love affair with their cars will not be easy

Lombardy President Roberto Formigoni now says a cultural revolution is needed - different working hours, different habits, staggered school opening times to keep transport flow as fluid as possible.

An opinion poll showed strong support for car free Sundays, and a growing awareness of the risks to health unless concerted action is taken.

More cars than children

But ending the Italians' love affair with their cars will not be easy.

The Environmental League, Legambiente, says that for every one new child born here, four new cars are registered.

For decades Italian city dwellers have had a cast iron alibi - the deplorable state of public transport

It also estimates that the average Italian spends seven years of his life stuck in traffic.

For decades Italian city dwellers have had a cast-iron alibi - the deplorable state of public transport, especially in the metropoli. But the service has improved significantly in recent years, though it still falls behind other many European countries.

The introduction of pay parking for large tracts of city centres has also helped starting to wean people off their cars.

Efforts to introduce pedestrian zones in the centre of major Italian cities have, however, been hesitant - even when local referendums showed strong public support.

Car sharing

Complaints from retailers and other lobbies have frequently seen the pedestrian zones rolled back, or reduced to just a few hours a day.

Cyclists complain that the absence of ample safe cycling lanes means they only use their bikes at the weekend.

However the concept of car pools has, to date, never caught on - partly because of the individualism of Italians, but partly because such clean air strategies were not facilitated by the powers that be.

The latest example of this is the increase of the price of bus tram and metro tickets in Milan to coincide with the arrival of the euro.

See also:

21 Jan 02 | Europe
Italian cities fight smog
22 Sep 00 | Europe
Europeans leave cars at home
06 May 99 | Medical notes
Exhaust emissions
02 Aug 00 | Health
City dwellers 'dying younger'
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