The Will to Cycle: With Francesco Iacorossi

9 min. read
Former rugby player and devoted cyclist, Francesco Iacorossi has been working as a project manager at Roma Servizi per la Mobilita since 2009 within EU funded projects mainly in the field of sustainable and active mobility behaviour through the promotion of cycling and walking measures in urban areas. In 2018 Francesco was named Bicycle Mayor of Rome.

How did your passion for cycling begin and how do you think embracing cycling impacted your wellbeing more generally?

Well, like the majority of us Romans,  I wasn’t born on a bicycle. We come from an auto-centric environment where the bicycle is mostly used for pleasure activities, like going to the park. Streets were, and still are for the most part dedicated to motorists. So growing up in this twisted environment, I almost immediately embraced the mythology of the car and motorbike as a status symbol. Then luckily I started working with an EU-funded project and found myself in the active mobility world. This has changed my life in a positive way. PASTA was a breakthrough of my working career and is still these days a milestone in the active mobility research. We coined the term active mobility! It has a fundamental key element which is not physical activity per se, it’s not simply going to the park on a Sunday. No, this is physical activity on a daily basis in order to get around the city which is a totally different concept. We studied the benefits of this – the health benefits and the economic benefits. The so-called ‘Bikeconomy’ comes from active mobility research.

I got rid of my car a decade ago. I got myself a bike. My partner and I have twins so we also bought a cart bike.This is our life now and this can be a reality in Rome. Sometimes we see photos of people cycling around Copenhagen, Amsterdam and everything looks so bright and easy – like a fairytale. I’m sure it’s easier to cycle there but I am the living proof that you can get around the city with a bike, even with kids.

We have a percentage of adults cycling in the city, but a low percentage of young kids cycling. It’s perceived as dangerous. It may be a little dangerous but this perception is overrated. Cycling is possible, convenient and has the same benefits here as it does in other cities that I have been lucky enough to visit.

Rome, like many other Italian cities, has reacted strongly to the pandemic with pro-cycling measures. Can you talk us through some specific projects you have been involved in?

For me, the EU budget is such a precious ally in terms of spreading the word, but also driving behavioural change to favour active mobility. It’s important to recognise both walking and cycling as key to active mobility. Projects like PASTA and Handshake are pillars of my personal career, and have significantly contributed to progress in active mobility. They’ve demonstrated a tangible sign of commitment to my city. Having had many chances to visit countries that are more developed on the subject of active mobility has been valuable. What is important is developing an awareness amongst urban dwellers that there are different ways of getting around the city that are not only a possibility, but bring with it many convenient aspects.

What we still lack is political will. As a project manager, I can bring best-practice ideas to the table. However, I am not powerful enough to put them into practice. It takes courage to develop these ideas further.

Citizens are still quite far away from implementing active mobility in their everyday lives.  Everytime we try to implement something on the topic of active mobility, it causes some degree of backlash as it often involves measures such as reducing parking spots or preventing double-parking. All these ‘wrong-doings’ are well established privileges people have become accustomed to and, if you take them away, they get upset. There is always a transition phase needed, and a strategy to make people aware of the benefits. Yet we managed to react quickly in the face of the pandemic. We were fast and pragmatic. COVID-19 streamlined the process. I had been preaching about active mobility since 2013, so this development was bittersweet for me – the idea that we needed a pandemic to highlight the wrong way we had been living. We worked rapidly and had already prepared an extensive transitory bike plan. Although we knew paint wasn’t the end-all solution, it proved to be reliable, safe and quick to implement. One of the solutions we used was to move the parking lines two meters aside which gave us a quick way to expand the cycling network and provide cyclists with more protection.

We didn’t choose the word ‘transitory’ for no reason. ‘Temporary’ would have made it sound like things would return to the way they previously were. We didn’t want citizens to think they could return to double-parking in a few months’ time. Transitory implies a phase. It gives those who oppose the interventions time to digest everything. Wording is really important when you approach such issues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a mental health and immobility crisis. How do you think cycling can be leveraged as a solution for these crises in the near future as we begin to heal and rebuild our cities?

Cycling and walking are the real vaccine for this pandemic. They will be part of the change, and the cultural change. If you talk to most people now, they are not happy about the everyday life they lead. They’re not happy to spend hours in traffic or to lose 25 minutes looking for a parking spot. Cycling and walking are very accessible measures to drastically change your everyday life for the better. The politicians can’t deny it anymore.

One thing we have achieved is a shift in thinking, from active travel as a leisure pursuit, to active travel as a systematic way of getting around the city. City planners need to think about two major components on our roads and that is more space for pedestrians, and more space for cyclists. The vast majority of space is dedicated to motorists at the moment. We also need to think about inclusivity and the way disabled people use the city. Their needs are highly important in creating inclusivity in active travel.

The EU PASTA project published a compelling study that looked at different transport modes in seven European cities. It found that cycling had the best physical and mental health benefits of all travel modes. What does it mean for policy and the implementation of active travel when such findings can be extracted so clearly?

PASTA was a highly comprehensive project geographically. It involved Rome, London, Barcelona and more. It was structured in an intelligent way and gathered data from more than 10,000 citizens in its course. It is possibly the most major study that ever took place in the EU. The data gathered fed into literature. Studies are still being produced based on what was gathered. The vast majority of studies proved that active mobility is the solution. The materials are free to be distributed to administrators, mayors and other key stakeholders who are key to changing people’s behaviours. They are key to changing the way people think about their neighbourhoods. If you can talk to residents about changes to their built environment, and have literature that backs up its benefits, that is highly valuable.

Cycling in Rome. Photo by Francesco Iacorossi

Cycling culture in The Netherlands is linked to a high level of independence and mobility amongst children, which is directly linked to their level of happiness, according to the WHO. How is Rome approaching a child-friendly cycling strategy as a way to support wellbeing?

That is a highly relevant issue. If I turn back time and see myself as a kid, I used to run around and play near my house. My parents didn’t stress about me running through the neighbourhood. It was a more relaxed atmosphere. Nowadays you only see kids playing in parks, not in streets as those are dedicated to cars. Cars are parked on the sidewalk, they’re speeding through neighbourhoods. My kids are three and a half and I feel pressure of letting them go out even onto the sidewalk alone. It’s depressing as a parent to only feel secure when I can close a gate, and that my kids are only safe in a segregated environment. I don’t want this. I want to be safe to traverse my city as I used to be when I was young. It wasn’t paradise but it was better.

Younger generations today report feeling increasingly socially isolated. How can sustainable transportation improve the younger generations’ sense of wellbeing?

The confidence amongst kids these days is very low. Kids are totally jailed by technology. They play with mobile phones all day. There’s an obesity problem and there’s a sedentary lifestyle. It’s a real issue that often isn’t dedicated enough time. It’s not dissimilar to that of considering the disabled in our decision-making. We don’t have to accept this, we can speak out and demand a real change.

If the city is more accommodating to vulnerable people, then it functions as a place for everyone. That’s a good starting point.

Yes, and normality is the way it was before. I won’t go back to normality because that was the problem. We need a rethink. Not only planners, but also citizens. To try and not use the car everyday, to try and cycle more where possible. COVID-19 has put a stop on public transport but there’s always alternative ways to get around the city. People should focus on the length of their systematic journeys as the vast majority of local journeys are under 3km which can be walked in 20 mins.

Social fragmentation and loneliness in cities especially over the last year has become a growing problem that needs to be tackled. Being on the street, whether you’re on a bike or walking, gives you greater social contact. Could greater journeys by bicycle or foot in Rome create a renewed or revitalised sense of community at the neighbourhood level?.

Definitely. Cycling and walking should be encouraged to recreate the community feeling which was lost this year, and that has been fading away slowly since my childhood. Nowadays we have a tendency to see each other in a place like organising a meet-up at our own houses. However Rome is one of the most fortunate cities in the world as we have loads of beautiful parks that are free. You don’t have to pay anything – walking and cycling can be done there completely for free.

How can we normalise daily cycling, and how can we better demonstrate the increased sense of wellbeing that it can bring? 

In order to achieve all we work on, a cultural change is needed. Many factors will contribute to this success if we are to win this struggle. Cycling and pedestrian infrastructure will put more people on bikes. When I was first introduced at the Handshake budget meeting, I had a profound chat with the Amsterdam Bicycle Manager. He told me something that is still on my mind. He said when you plan cycle infrastructure, don’t plan it for those who already cycle, but for those reluctant to cycle. And the other question you should ask yourself is  would you let your loved one cycle on the infrastructure you have just planned. It’s two simple sentences but they enable you to understand the quality of your intervention.

Firstly, I believe you need to build good infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Then marketing is really important. A behavioural change campaign is important. Rome participated in the European Cycling Challenge, and I was the man in charge for Rome.  I recognised the commitment shown for cyclists, and the value of the  data collected. The maps were highly valuable to help you understand how people got around the city. It made you realise what routes were best, even if they were different to what you initially believed.

All these things combined can produce a winning campaign. We need to intercept those who are reluctant to utilise active transport for various different reasons. Particularly for me, the target is to get the youth on board.

Everything is there for us – we have literature galore, we are overwhelmed by data. It’s not like 15 years ago where we were trying to collect data to convince those sceptical. No, we have it all, we have no excuses anymore these days, it’s about political will.