Out of Italy: Space odyssey that drives motorists to break the rules

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MILAN - A man seems to be sprinting for his life late at night near Piazza Udine, in the north-eastern suburbs of Milan. Contrary to appearances, he is attempting to move his car, parked illegally, to a free space in front of his block of flats. He jumps into the car and reverses it at alarming speed into on- coming traffic, only to be thwarted in his parking attempt by a car that suddenly appears and takes the space ahead of him.

Such frustrations are commonplace for the Milanese motorist. Many attempts to alleviate the city's impossible burden of traffic - and lack of suitable parking areas - have been frustrated for reasons linked to the scandals currently devastating Italy's national and local government.

The city has a population of 1.5 million, yet there are 900,000 cars registered out of a national total of 29 million. Eighty-two per cent of Milanese use cars daily, and only 18 per cent travel by public means, illustrating the reluctance Italians have for giving up their preferred form of transport.

On any working day, 650,000 cars are on the roads, travelling from the suburbs to the city centre or vice versa. Since there are only 245,000 official parking-spaces, about 250,000 vehicles are regularly parked illegally. The rules are that there are no rules; park anywhere because everyone else does.

Paolo Montagna, spokesman for the Milan office of the national motoring organisation ACI, says his group is campaigning for improvements. Unusually for a motoring organisation, ACI urges its members to use public transport instead of cars, wherever there is an adequate service. The problem is that in Milan, these alternatives do not exist. 'If you don't want 200,000 cars illegally parked in the city, then you must offer more buses and trains,' Mr Montagna says.

Milan, however, has become known as tangentopoli, or Bribesville, because of the scandals sweeping the country and the city's reputation has been badly tarnished. Road-builders and construction companies in Milan have been implicated in the payment of kickbacks to politicians involved in local administration. It is proving virtually impossible, despite the stated willingness of local councillors, to implement policies to solve the traffic problem.

The commonly held belief in the city is that local politicians fear being implicated in the scandals and do not act because corruption investigations could overturn their decisions. As a result, funds are not being allocated for desperately needed public transport improvements.

The scarcity of parking space is also often blamed on local government ineffectiveness. As long ago as 1984 a full-scale plan was completed to provide adequate official spaces but this has never been implemented. Currently, the city council has no effective power because the mayor, Pietro Borghini, resigned in January, leaving a lame-duck council awaiting fresh elections in June.

Giuseppe Cozza, head of Milan's transport, traffic and roads department is optimistic about extending the underground train network but realistic about overcoming the problem: 'Even if we develop the underground system this doesn't mean we'll reduce pollution. The central government has to act. As a council we can do something, but it's not enough.'

A new highway code, which was introduced in January and brought heavier fines for parking contraventions and promised extended use of wheel clamps, failed to make an impactE. The council has insufficient numbers of traffic police to enforce the law and there are no funds to pay employees to tow carsTHER write error away and no pounds to keep them in. Drivers openly flout parking regulations with impunity.

Some initiatives have been made to address the problem. The newspaper La Repubblica in its Milan edition carries daily information about car owners who commute into the city centre and are willing to share cars. The resulting 'car pools' are being hailed as progress.

But La Repubblica also reported last week that a parking-meter scheme introduced last December has proved a conspicuous failure. Drivers avoided the streets where the meters are sited, leaving them virtually empty, and the nearby roadways were jammed with even more illegally parked cars than usual.

Mr Montagna does not offer hope for a solution: 'Cars are the backbone of Italian transport. We must do something to overcome the traffic crisis. Milan's council has tried, for example, to introduce flexible office hours in the city. But people don't want to give up their working routines to alleviate the congestion. We don't have a strong government, so we can't take strong measures.'