Walk and Bike Torino

As a San Francisco Bay Area native, I have an innate sense of pedestrian entitlement which has proven to be a major hazard in Torino, where car is king.  Cars do NOT yield to pedestrians and bikes here, and if for some reason you forget this basic fact, the car coming at you will happily remind you by accelerating in your direction.  A major goal of Torino’s regional plan has been the improvement of the pedestrian environment, and a small but vocal bike advocacy community has also made great strides in improving bike facilities as well.

Bike sharing
The City of Torino started a bike-sharing program that proved hugely popular.  In fact, the program is so popular I was hard-pressed to find a bike sharing station that had any bikes in it!  I finally snapped this photo on a quiet Sunday morning:

The popularity of the program in Torino led to its adoption in many of the region’s smaller suburbs and towns, such as this one, in the small town of Veneria:

Bike sharing in Veneria

Both the city and the suburban bike sharing programs are run by a single private company, and –  according to the Mayor of the little suburb of Grugliasco –  the program in his city is revenue-neutral after just one year in operation.

Reclaiming Pedestrian Spaces
I was shocked to learn that until recently, many of Torino’s beautiful and historic pedestrian plazas had in fact been open to cars.  The beautiful Palazza Madama, a 14th century castle in the middle of the city’s large central piazza was, for many years, completely surrounded by gigantic traffic circle!  Locals joked that it was the most scenic traffic circle in Italy.   The large cobblestone courtyard in front of the Royal Palace (where the first King of Unified Italy lived) had been converted to a parking lot!  As part of the city’s renovation, many of these spaces in Torino and the surrounding cities have been reconverted to pedestrian use.

Torino's central piazza, with the royal palace in the background, was a giant parking lot for most of the 20th century.

This sign in the small town of Veneria restricts the access of cars to the historic town center

In recent years, Torino and its surrounding cities have also spruced up their old pedestrian walkways that line some of the older neighborhoods, such as this one in Grugliasco.

New signals and repaved cobblestones are a few of the pedestrian improvements on this walkway in Grugliasco.

Bike Advocacy
I was excited to learn about the efforts of a few local bike advocates, such as Bici e Basta (bikes are enough) and Muovi Equilibri that have organized cyclists in Torino and successfully lobbied to create bike lanes in busy streets, often by removing street parking.  Here’s an example of a street, Via Verdi, that has been reclaimed for bikes:

Bike lane on Via Verdi in the historic center of Torino

Will these changes eventually lead to a change in the relationship between cars, pedestrians and bikes in Torino?  Its hard to say, but I’m encouraged both by the projects already undertaken, and the emergence of citizens groups that are well-organized and making an impact.

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Torino’s target for reducing car travel? GRANDISSIMA

I’ve been in Torino for almost a month now, and my Italian has improved enough that I decided to tackle the holy grail of transportation behavior: the travel demand survey. Every two years the metropolitan transportation agency here does a survey of its residents to understand how they are using the roads, trains, bike lanes and buses that make up the regional transport network.

With the help of Google translator and some patient colleagues, I sifted my way through the data for the last ten years, and some future projections, to get a sense of how Torino’s regional plan is affecting actual travel behavior. Are Torinese driving less and taking transit more? Are they riding their bikes more often?

Why, you ask, am I doing this tortuous exercise instead of drinking vino? Well, a key aspect of our new law in California, SB 375, is the establishment of GHG targets for each metropolitan region in the state. These targets directly correlate to travel behavior: the less you drive, the fewer GHGs you create. California’s first GHG targets were adopted in September 2010 after a long and contentious process. The highest targets belong to the Sacramento region, which is committed to reducing car-related GHG emissions 7% by 2020, and 16% by 2035.

Italy doesn’t have SB 375, but Torino does have an ambitious regional plan to improve public transport, regenerate urban areas, and diversify the regional economy. If I can understand how that plan is affecting actual travel behavior, that can help me understand what’s possible in California.

THE major transport project of Torino’s plan is the Metropolitan Railway System, or SFM, a massive project to integrate, expand and upgrade the regional rail network that connects Torino with the suburban communities that surround it.

The element of this project that that excites me the most is the “Central Spine” concept.  The new rail system will be anchored by an axis of four stations that run north-south through the center of Torino. This axis, known as the “Spina Centrale” or “Central Backbone” is a former industrial rail corridor that bisects the city, flanked by old industrial brownfields. For most of Torino’s industrial period, this railway was like a giant scar running through the city, dividing the city center from the neighborhoods across the tracks. Now, a stretch of eight miles through the heart of the city is being put underground and a new, multimodal boulevard is taking shape at ground level.  This a massive public works project that will not only improve transit for the entire region, but will also have real benefits for the neighborhoods adjacent to the project.

The old industrial factories and contaminated brownfields along the railway are being cleaned up and converted to new housing, university centers and commercial uses. Each of the 4 major train stations along the “Central Spine” is being upgraded, including the big new central station at Porta Susa that I visited my first week in Torino. Each is becoming a multi/modal hub of transit-oriented development.

Its hard to imagine the scale of this project.

Looking south along the Central Backbone from Dora Station.

This huge project has been under construction for over a decade, but stretches of it are already complete, including the stretch which runs by my office here at the University!  Here’s an aerial view of what it looks like now:

A view of the Central Spine where the transformation is complete. The railway is under the boulevard in the center. On the left, old industrial buildings have been converted to University facilities, including the Institute where I'm sitting right now. It's in one of the low buildings with the grey roofs.


Another aspect of the regional plan is the creation of a subway, known as the Metro, that links the rail stations to various neighborhoods and job centers in central Torino. The first leg of the subway has been open since 2006 and further expansions are underway. The Metro is the first major new transportation project to open since the adoption of the strategic plan.

Inside the shiny new Metro station.

There are also some great bicycle and pedestrian projects which deserve more detail than I can provide here, so I’ll save those for a subsequent post.  But they are also having an impact on reducing the amount of driving in Torino.

So to get back to our original question: how much has Torino reduced VMT so far through all these projects, and how much do they expect to reduce it in the future?

The most dramatic change in actual behavior happened after 2006, when the new subway opened. Between 2006 and 2008, the total number of overall trips decreased by 16%, but this change largely reflects the economic downturn. The more relevant statistic is the number of trips taken on public transport, which increased by 3.6% during this time period, from 22.8% to 26.4% of total trips. This probably doesn’t sound like much, but in the world of transport this is a significant shift. The data on biking and walking isn’t as clean, but a similar trend exists there.  New 2010 data is expected in the next few weeks, and from what I hear, the trend is continuing, even accelerating.

The much bigger change in travel behavior is expected when the new regional rail system becomes fully operational. The regional transportation agency (Agenzia Mobilita Metropolitana Torino), predicts that by 2020, the number of transit trips will increase by a whopping 73% and the number of car trips will decline by 36% compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

These are very big numbers and there is good reason to suspect that they are probably too high. The regional agency is currently developing a new travel model (sound familiar?) and the officials I spoke with were quick to acknowledge that there are some problems with the current one.

However, they were just as quick to point to other cities in Europe that have seen these kind of dramatic transformations after opening a massive new rail system. In Zurich, for example, transit ridership increased 82% in 12 years after the opening of a new rail system.

The question remains – is it possible to create massive change on the scale necessary to address the global warming crisis?  I think part of the reason I’m so enchanted by the Central Backbone project is the sheer nerve of it.  Imagine taking such an ambitious idea from fantasy to reality!  The Torinese I’ve talked to believe deeply in this new vision for their region and they are excited to leave behind the dirty industrial cloud that has marred their otherwise rich history. Italy’s reputation for corrupt politics is deserved, but there is much to admire in what this city and region have accomplished through collaboration and shared vision.  I am so impressed by the passion and tenacity of the people I’ve met in Torino, and I think this transformation is a reflection of their spirit.  California has our own rich history of collective action to meet big challenges and when it comes to transforming our regions, I hope we can be as nervy and passionate as Torino.

Signing off,

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Tutto il mondo e paese – all the world is a village

Franco Corsico was a driving force in Torino's transformation from industrial capitol to green city.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Franco Corsico, who many consider to be the architect of Torino’s successful regional plan.  Corsico is a professor of urban planning at Politechnico di Torino and he served as deputy mayor in charge of planning under Valentino Castellani.

I expected a fairly standard interview, but Corsico really wanted to hear about our grand SB 375 experiment in California.  So we talked a lot about our shared challenges (parochialism, NIMBYs, lack of incentives) and different ways to approach those challenges.  Many times, after hearing about a problem we have in California, he laughed and shook his head and said “Tutto il mondo e paese” – which means “all the world is a village.”

Corsico’s time in public office came at an historic time in Torino and Italy, following a wave of political scandal and corruption in the early 1990s that toppled the traditional political party structure in Torino and many other Italian cities and allowed, for the very first time, the direct election of mayors.  Corsico’s boss Castellani was thus the first directly-elected mayor of Torino and, as a university professor himself, was unaffiliated with the political elite.  His administration marked a turning point in the civic life of Torino, and the appointment of respected, non-political figures like Franco Corsico added to  the Administration’s credibility.

Corsico oversaw the creation and implementation of three important plans that form the basis for Torino’s transformation:

* the Urban Masterplan – A mandatory document, similar to the General Plan which outlines the land use and transportation policy for the city.  When Corsico became deputy mayor, the Urban Masterplan was 35 years old and highly auto-centric and favorable of industry.  He oversaw the update of the Masterplan with a new focus on revitalization of older neighborhoods, integration with the surrounding region, and expanding transit, pedestrian zones and bicycle infrastructure.

* the Strategic Plan for Torino and Regione Piemonte – A new, collaborative, voluntary document that outlined a vision for the region’s future, including transportation, land use, economy, social integration and regional collaboration.  Very similar to our SCS, but Torino did it without any mandates or incentives.  The plan is implemented by a hodge-podge of players, including municipalities, transport agencies and NGOs.

* Neighborhoods Unit – a plan and, later, a governmental unit to oversee the regeneration of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Created the first interdepartmental task force to deal with wide-ranging problems in urban neighborhoods and a bottom-up process to engage residents in developing regeneration plans.

Here are some highlights from my conversation with Franco Corsico:

On cities and change:
“Cities do not wait for plans to be implemented. They move on.   So you make a plan, and begin to implement it, and along the way projects get built, and they aren’t always exactly what you planned for.  So you have to be flexible and adapt.”

On reducing auto dependence:
“Cars are highly successful because they are so adaptable to diverse lifestyles and needs. With this single mode you can do short trips, long trips, go to work, go on vacation, go to nightclubs, grocery stores, school etc etc. In order to compete with the car, we must design communities that have interconnections of many types. Transport systems must be flexible and adaptable and diverse. Neighborhoods must have access to not just one mode, but many: long-distance trains, local streetcars, bike paths, buses etc.”

On regional collaboration:
“The urgency of the economic situation in the 1980s and 1990s drove the regional collaboration. Since the plan has achieved some success, the excitement has waned. Now there is less urgency.”

“The regional planning approach was only somewhat successful because each city did not recognize the benefit of this approach and was afraid of losing power. There were not enough incentives.”

On the economic benefits of urban transformation:
“Torino’s plan was, in essence, a Keynesian investment in infrastructure to maintain the base of employment and consumer spending during the economic crisis. It also spurred private investment, particularly in housing in the urban renewal areas.”

“Historically, new homebuyers have gone to the outlying areas to buy housing, because in the city center the prices are high and the condition of the housing is substandard. Only later did people realize the increased costs associated with transportation and the lack of services and amenities. Through implementation of the plan, we are improving the quality of the older neighborhoods and demonstrating that better services are available, especially when it comes to transportation.”

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United States Boulevard: Bike Path + Car Dungeon

My office in Torino is located at the end of Corso Stati Uniti, aka United States Boulevard, a short but heavily-traveled street between the Polytechnic University and the Porta Nuova train station.

Corso Stati Uniti is a wide boulevard with a fair amount of traffic and would be forgettable except for the lovely chestnut tree-lined bike boulevard on one side of the street.   I’ve walk down the bike path four or five times already, but only yesterday did I realize what lies beneath: cars!

Every few blocks there is a glass dome like this one, which contains an elevator and a staircase down into the parking dungeon.  At the other end of the block, a small ramp noses down underneath the path.  The area around Corso Stati Uniti is full of 4-8 story apartment buildings, and presumably this whole subterranean scheme was created to accommodate all their cars in a built-out neighborhood.  I found this to be a pretty impressive way to elevate the bike/ped experience on a busy street while submerging the cars. Of course it would be better to have just the bike path and no parking garage, but hey this is United States Boulevard we’re talking about!

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A visit from Amanda and una domanda di FIAT

Last weekend I had a visit from friend and colleague Amanda Eaken of NRDC. It was marvelous to explore Torino with a friend, especially one as outgoing and inquisitive as Amanda. We found ourselves in some fascinating conversations about Torino and, as often happens when talking about Torino, we found ourselves talking about FIAT.

Amanda had been practicing her Italian during the flight from San Francisco, and she arrived ready to parlare. At a bar in the hip Quadrilatero Romano area, Amanda engaged the bartender Raffaela in a lengthy conversation about municipal politics in Torino. At a restaurant called Freevolo, she befriended Marco and we learned about the city’s bike culture including Massa Critica Torino (aka Critical Mass Turin). When she went out to buy a notebook, Amanda came back with an itinerary for a bike tour.

By the end of her visit, I began to tease her by saying Mi chiamo Amanda, ho uno domanda! It means “My name is Amanda and I have a question!” (Its funny in Italian, I swear.)

Amanda practices her Italian – complete with hand gestures – with a street vendor in Torino

Teasing aside, Amanda helped me get out of my shell and start talking to ordinary Italians. My grasp of the language improved dramatically while she was here, and I learned a lot about how ordinary Torinese feel about their city and the changes that are taking place.

A particular gem emerged from a conversation with a young worker for Amnesty International. On Sunday afternoon he was standing in busy Piazza Castello, talking to passersby and trying to get them to sign up as members. We began to chat and he shared a fascinating conspiracy theory about why Torino has historically lacked effective transit. According to our young conspiracist, the powerful family behind FIAT, the Agnellis, wanted to make sure Torinese bought their cars, so they stopped the city from investing in subways or trains.

I ran this theory by a few of the planners and transportation experts I’ve met. While no one can confirm it, everyone thinks it is probably true. I’ve been reading about the history of FIAT and Torino, and I am nothing short of astonished by the power and influence that FIAT and the Agnellis wielded in this city for most of the 20th century.

FIAT founder Giovanni Agnelli oversaw an industrial manufacturing empire based in Torino that, at its peak, produced 95% of the cars in Italy. During the Fascist era he was close to Mussolini and became so powerful he overshadowed the municipal authorities. FIAT had special permission from il Duce to suspend labor laws at their plants in Torino – and they did.  When dissent emerged Agnelli simply bought the major newspaper La Stampa so that he had near total control over civic discourse.

Giovanni Agnelli, Founder of FIAT (image courtesy of City of Torino Historical Archives)

But FIAT’s relationship with Torino is more complex than it first appears. After World War Two and the fall of Mussolini, Torino was in desperate crisis – food, housing and energy were all in short supply. With the government safety net practically non-existent, FIAT deployed its own private welfare system to provide food, shoes, clothing and fuel to its employees and their families. Torinese began calling the company “La Mamma.”

So Agnelli was both tyrant and savior of Torino, and that love-hate relationship continued right through the post-war economic boom, or “il boom” as its known here. FIAT was the main economic engine behind il boom, and it relied on a steady stream of workers from impoverished southern Italy to work in its factories. This led to rapid population growth in Torino, but the weak municipal government did nothing to regulate new housing and infrastructure, so it was an urban planning free-for-all. New arrivals were crammed into substandard housing that surrounded the factories on the periphery of the city. Infrastructure was not expanded fast enough to meet growing demand. Little was done to address the chronic housing, health, education and transport problems in these areas, and tensions between Torinese and recent immigrants grew.

Eventually, these simmering problems exploded into massive strikes, protests and the violent anti-industrial terrorism of the Red Brigades in the 1970s. These forces, combined with a global oil crisis and the dismantling of trade barriers in Europe, sent FIAT into a long, slow decline that eventually brought the mighty company to its knees. (For an excellent history of Torino and FIAT, check out this paper by Astrid Winkler at the London School of Economics).

Today, the FIAT factory known as the “Lingotto” (translation: ingot) – once the first assembly-line plant in Europe – is now a shopping mall, convention center, and concert hall. When Torino hosted the Winter Olympics in 2006, many of the events occurred in and around the Lingotto.

FIAT’s Lingotto, the first assembly-line plant in Europe

FIAT’s fortunes began to recover in the last five years, as they embarked on a new strategy of partnering with local auto manufacturers in Russia, China and India. In a final and marvelous stroke of irony, FIAT played the role of savior once more, this time to American taxpayers, when it bailed out Detroit auto manufacturer Chrysler in 2009. Coming soon to a Chrysler dealer near you: the Fiat 500.

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Backstage pass to the new regional rail hub!

Groupies at the new Porta Susa train station

Yesterday I scored a behind-the-scenes tour of a major regional project here in Torino: the new railway station at Porta Susa. The new station is Torino’s equivalent of the Bay Area’s TransBay Terminal: it will create a single hub for local, regional and international rail service. Its a linchpin in Torino’s regional plan – providing better connectivity within the city and the region, and improving connections to other major cities in central Europe.

Currently, train service in Torino is spread among three different stations, with no single “hub.” Trains for the airport depart from one station; trains to Milan from another. This is frustrating for locals and travelers alike, and so very un-European.

When the car was king of Torino, there was little motivation to correct this problem. But this lack of connectivity is increasingly seen as a hindrance to Torino’s economic competitiveness in a Europe where all major cities have fast, efficient rail connections to move people and goods.

During Torino’s regional planning process, where stakeholders and officials from across the region came together to develop a vision for the future, the new train station emerged as a top priority. It is viewed as an investment in the new “knowledge” economy that emphasizes connectivity, innovation and creativity. This is good for city of Torino but also the surrounding municipalities, which benefit from better commute options, easier access for tourists, and improved transport for the goods and services they produce. (The rural areas around Torino are famous for wine, cheese and meats).  The strong regional consensus in support of the project helped it secure funds from the EU and Italian government.

Yesterday, the agency in charge of building the new station organized a tour for the media and local mucky-mucks. Some of my colleagues here at SiTI, the research center where I’m based, had scored invitations to the tour and they let me tag along. When we arrived there were about 20 people milling around and someone was passing out hard hats. Most of the hard hats were white, but I got a red one. I was naturally the tallest person there and when I put on the red hard hat everyone laughed. One of my colleagues called me “Papa Smurf.”

The new station – which is about halfway complete – is incredibly complex, and also very beautiful. Surrounded on all sides by historic buildings and major thoroughfares, the design of the project is uniquely long, narrow and deep: three sets of train tracks will be stacked one atop another beneath the station. The finished structure will look like a long glass tube, with an open promenade on the top floor filled with trees and light.   The top floor will essentially function as community space in a dense neighborhood. Where roads intersect the building, pedestrian thoroughfares will allow people to walk through, rather than around, the station, to allow connectivity for the surrounding neighborhoods.

The new station, viewed here from the southeast side, will look like a long narrow glass dome stretching the length of three city blocks

The project is designed with numerous openings, skylights and transparent materials at every level that will allow natural light to penetrate all the way to the underground platforms. There are also clusters of semi-transparent photovoltaic cells on the outside of the dome – they are visible in the photo below.

Photovoltaic cells in the “skin” of the new station

The architect who designed the project gave a lengthy talk at the beginning of the tour.  I couldn’t understand much of what he said, but he was a dapper fellow and really looked the part of the Visionary Architect.

Love the purple scarf.

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Torino: First Impressions

I arrived in Torino on Monday and spent the first few days getting acquainted. I’m staying in a small apartment in a very old neighborhood in the central city. The neighborhood has narrow streets, lots of churches, long promenades of ancient stone – an urbanista fantasyland of old Europe. First the Romans, then the Savoy kings, carefully planned and built a city of palaces and passagiatas. I feel like I could walk around Torino every day for years and find some new glorious treasure every time.


But this ancient city also bears the scars of a half century of automobile use – even in the historic district. The narrow streets are jammed with cars, pedestrians and cyclists dodge maniacal drivers, and idling traffic pollutes the air.


A local shopowner, Graciella, was skeptical when I told her I’d come to Torino to learn about reducing automobile dependence. Torino is, after all, a city of cars. As the home of FIAT, Torino has sometimes been called the Detroit of Italy. The automobile was the economic engine of Torino for the last century, a strange and contradictory twist of fate for this ancient city.

But the story doesn’t end there. When the Italian automobile industry went into decline in the 1970s and 80s, it was devastating for Torino. Around the same time, a growing crisis in local government reached the breaking point – Torino had a series of four mayors in five years. Faced with these dual crises, Torino faced some difficult choices and had little in the way of political or economic capital to work with. Business-as-usual wasn’t an option, because business-as-usual no longer existed. Hey California, sound familiar?

What emerged from this crisis was a transformative regional partnership, the first of its kind in Italy, that created a new vision for the built environment and the regional economy. That vision was adopted in a series of key documents in the mid-1990s and implementation has been underway for 15 years.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll explore that transformation in greater detail, including the projects and policies themselves, as well as the political steps that were taken to develop and implement Torino’s regional vision.  Stay tuned.


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You’re doing what where??

Thanks for stopping by. I’ve launched this blog to chronicle my research into how European regions have kicked the oil addiction and made their communities more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly. Over the course of the next ten weeks, I’ll be exploring three metropolitan regions in Europe and looking for ideas and lessons that could help California’s regions do the same.  In particular, I’ll be looking for strategies that are applicable to SB 375, California’s new sustainable communities law.

How on earth is this happening, you ask?  I have been lucky enough to receive a fellowship from the German Marshall Fund’s Comparative Domestic Policy Program. I am taking a leave of absence from my role at ClimatePlan for the remainder of the fall and will be back after the holidays.

My fellowship begins on Monday, October 11 in Torino, Italy.  The other two regions I’ll be studying are Lyon, France and Stuttgart, Germany. Along the way I’ll post stories, photos and observations here on this site.  Your comments and questions are most welcome.  To subscribe to my blog and receive an email when there’s a new post, click on the link in the sidebar.

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