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Air Pollution Forces Italian Cities to Enact Serious Driving Restrictions

Unusually mild and dry weather in much of Italy has worsened air quality so much that city governments are acting to reduce emissions from one of the chief sources of air pollution by enacting odd-even license restrictions on driving.
December 29, 2015, 7am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Following the example set by Madrid last month and Paris in March, Italian cities are looking to curb driving and incentivize transit usage as a means to cope with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

"An unusually long period of stable weather with little rain or wind has driven air pollution levels to record highs in Italy and prompted emergency measures in a number of cities," writes Gaia Pianigiani for The New York Times in Rome. “(H)igh concentrations of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) continue, aggravated by the weather situation of high pressure and absence of wind,” the city government said.

But many argue that whatever the weather, Italy needs to get better control over the heavy traffic choking its cities and the emissions from home heating systems that are scarcely monitored by the authorities.

Pianigiani describes the driving restrictions and transit benefits that municipal governments will enact because of the high pollution levels. Air quality is not anticipated to improve because of the lingering high atmospheric pressure weather pattern.

  • In Milan, Italy's second largest city, "the city government’s decision on Wednesday (Dec. 23) to restrict traffic between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for three days next week made headlines and raised health concerns. [More on Milan's congestion cordon charge below.]
  • In Rome, the special commissioner who is acting as mayor said Thursday that car traffic in the city would once again be limited next Monday and Tuesday in the early morning and late afternoon, based on the last digits of license plate numbers, while single-ride tickets on the city’s transit system would become passes valid all day. 
  • In the northwestern city of Turin (pop. 911,823), public transportation was free for two days this month to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home.

As in other cities such as Delhi where diesel cars are singled-out because of their higher emissions, Milan's auto restrictions are confined to diesel cars.

Nicola Pirrone, director of the Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research at Italy’s National Research Council, described episodic measures such as "blocking traffic for one or two days" and odd-even license plate driving restrictions, as "merely palliative".

One example of a policy change would be to follow Madrid's example of charging more for polluting cars and allowing electric vehicles to park for free.

Arguably a more effective policy of reducing traffic and auto emissions was implemented in 2008 in the form of a congestion cordon charge. A revised version was lifted after only six months due to a judge's ruling on a lawsuit brought by a garage owner, described in an August 2012 post.

Eric Jaffe of CityLab writes that when the 2012 cordon charge was halted for eight weeks, the effect was immediate—traffic returned as soon as the charge was waived, "no lag period." The charge had reduced emissions "from 6 to 17 percent."

The editor of Eltis describes the the two pricing schemes applied to "AREA C" in Milan since 2008. Ironically, the early scheme, Ecopass, is described as a pollution charge.

As noted in earlier this month, keeping the focus on air quality presents an effective strategy to reduce driving, even if it be episodic-based, as Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris implemented last month.

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Published on Thursday, December 24, 2015 in The New York Times - Europe
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