The future of public transportation needs courage – Why and how, lessons from Italy

What do courage and the future of public transportation have in common? Well, the coronavirus public health crisis has had a radical impact on our daily lives. It has come as an unexpected shock, but many believe it could become an opportunity to profoundly influence new social behaviors in the near future.

Moving back towards our normal life, before the release of an effective vaccine, will be indeed the new “normal”.

Many private businesses are gearing up to redesign their internal processes, including communication with customers and their purchasing experience. Economic aid will probably be needed to restart, but we will also need to face uncertainty in the coming months with courage and determination.

milan trams

In the photo: Milan tram network in need of an upgrade.

But how are Public Services (and Public Transportation) preparing for this “new normalcy”?

Italy was the first country in Europe to be hit by the coronavirus tsunami, and it is now the first country to face the challenge of relaunching/restarting public services after the lockdown is lifted. Italian National Health Systems were the first to be hit, often exposing (except perhaps the German case) many shortcomings and an unjustifiable lack of preparation (plans drawn up and never carried out) in an area where prevention is fundamental.

If health care has been overwhelmed by this emergency, other areas of public services face a different challenge, as the lockdown is allowing for time to prepare, albeit very little.

Changes will have to be substantial, and the task force of experts appointed by the Italian government is already working to bring the country to a “new normalcy”. Some pillars of our society such as Justice, Education and services for the Cultural sector will certainly be affected by important changes, but it will be Mobility, especially local transportation (public or private) that will bear the strongest impact.

Mobility is definitely the one sector that is suffering most from the COVID-19 crisis, all around the world. Unlike other areas, public transport must continue to operate in order to guarantee access to all social classes.

Public transportation is a right designed to offer equal opportunities while protecting the weaker segments of society and safeguarding the environment.

Milan tube

In the photo: Milan tube station

Already in February 2020, the International Association of Public Transport claimed that although public transport is an essential service for the social and economic stability of our cities, at the same time, it has to be considered a high-risk environment.

In March, the Italian Ministry of Transport issued guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19 in transport and logistics but it is evident that, considering the limited attention paid to local public transport, it is very difficult to deal with in a generalized way. While access control systems have already been designed and tested in the train stations and airports because of terrorism, a similar level of control for every single bus, tram, or metro car is a new subject matter, making an ad hoc approach necessary.

In Italy there are more than a hundred transport companies and agencies, often working at a loss. They often compete with one another within the same area, and very few are structured to deal with either the current crisis of their future “renaissance”. Today they are in full lockdown and, as indicated by the Ministry, boarding buses temporarily takes place only through the rear door, in order to protect drivers. Tickets thus cannot be sold or checked on board.

Are these recommendations enough to prevent public transport from becoming places of propagation? Probably not. And tomorrow? What will happen when schools, universities, business centers and factories reopen

The equation Public transportation = High Contagion risk is a common thought

Some cities are considering developing new cycle paths and adapt urban spaces to promote alternatives to public transportation. But the fear is that whoever can, will use their own car (in Europe, Italy ranks second only to Luxembourg in the number of cars per thousand inhabitants); those who don’t have this privilege will inevitably be pushed to the margins of society.

Can anyone even imagine the consequences? The empty streets and clean air of quarantine days will be but a memory in a sad future of traffic and unbreathable air.

Buses, trams, and metro trains traveling half-empty to maintain social distancing, used by only the lower economic layers of society, will seem useless, leading to proposals to dismantle the service.

Low-emission and electric cars will be promoted but, to ensure that everyone can move safely, older models will also have to be allowed to move.

The connections with suburbs and peri-urban areas will be impossible. ZTL (restricted traffic zones in the city center) will no longer make sense. And in a short time, we will find ourselves sitting safely inside our cars, stuck in traffic in an increasingly divided society.

If studies on the correlation between coronavirus and pollution were to be confirmed, the future would be grotesque. And vulnerable to yet more aggressively lethal pandemics.

Milan electric tram

In the photo: Milan electric tram, named Sirietto (ATM7500) in Ple Egeo – Credit: Arbalete

If we don’t try to support local systems of sustainable mobility and public transport now, we are literally triggering an ecological, public health and social time bomb.

The repercussions on the policies needed for economic recovery will be serious. Just think of the significant impact on the world of work, logistics, and the tourism industry.

A few days ago Giovanni Scarfone, of the company that manages public transport in Bergamo, the most infected province in Italy (and the world), launched the challenge to redesign the public transport offer to the UITP international network.

Following the most recent DCPM (Presidential decree), Andrea Gibelli, President of ASSTRA (Transport Association), expressed the hope that the silence of the government on such an essential matter for the economic and social stability of the country is only temporary, and that the efforts made for Alitalia were the prelude to an equally decisive intervention regarding local transport.

Orange tesla

In the photo: Orange Tesla in the streets of Milan

As for private companies, economic aid will not be enough to redesign their offer of mobility services.

Digitization will be needed to avoid contacts as much as possible.

We will have to rethink bus stops, sidewalks, and turnstile queues. Companies must be able to quickly and constantly communicate with operators and users, confidently answering questions to build trust with passengers:

Almost all the Italian companies that manage local transport will need to consider the issues and take a real leap forward for the quality and complexity of their service.

And they have to do it in a very short time, during an economic and social crisis and with the oldest transport fleet in Europe.

The European Union is aware of this enormous challenge, and a part of the aid for the fight against coronavirus is earmarked, in continuity with policies favoring the energy transition, for investments in safer and more efficient transport.

Italy needs to find the courage to save its public transport system and defuse this bomb.

The courage to invest in innovation in public, accessible, and shared transport systems. The courage to consider public and sustainable mobility as an experience and not simply as an equation matching supply and demand.

The courage to finally adopt a contemporary service design approach based on behavioral science and communication.

The Task Force’s lack of expertise in the fields of mobility, planning, or service design leads us to think that, considering the fragmentation and specificity of the problem, these resources will be identified directly at the local and regional level.

If so, an Urban Mobility Task Force centrally coordinated but locally managed could work alongside public and private transport companies and help them become more agile to face the new challenges of service management, and learn faster.

If so, the network of URBACT, CIVINET could be involved, along with similar projects and a whole new generation of designers and researchers, who for years – in Italy, from Trento to Scicli, Sicily – have been actively and steadfastly working on service innovation for public policies and sustainability.

If so, we would be happy to contribute.


Matteo d’Aloja is Head of External Relations & Communications of Ghella SpA, one of the main Italian infrastructure companies.
Ghella SpA was established more than 120 years ago and is a leader in major public works worldwide, with a FY19 turnover of 650 million EUR and more than 3.600 employees worldwide.
He represents Italy sitting in the European International Contractors (EIC) Board of Directors.
From 2016 is in the Aspen Institute as Junior Fellow.


Salvatore Di Dio is co-founder and managing director of the design lab for innovation PUSH, and he coordinates international applied studies in the field of urban sustainability, social innovation and public service design.
He’s also co-founder of the consulting firm “Neu”, the cross-media production company “The Piranesi Experience” and the MUV B-Corp. startup.
From 2016 is in the Aspen Institute as Junior Fellow.

This letter was sent to the Government Task Force signed by a first group of professionals and researchers in the field of design, service innovation and urban policies.
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Matteo d’Aloja (Head of External Relations & Communications di Ghella SpA), Salvatore Di Dio e Domenico Schillaci (PUSH), Daniela Patti (Eutropian), Silvia Remotti (Paco Design Collaborative), Giuseppe Colistra (GreenShare), Barbara Marcotulli (Absolute People), Simone d’Antonio (URBACT National Point), Vincenzo Di Maria e Claudia Busetto (commonground srl), Raffaele Boiano (FifthBeat), Luca Studer (Politecnico di Milano – Laboratorio Mobilità e Trasporti), Leonardo De Micheli, Luca D’Eusebio (Zappata), Flavia Weisghizzi, Daniele Terzariol (Assessore di San Donà di Piave), Marco Dotti (Vita), Silvia Minenti (Service design lead – Doing), Davide Buscato (BusForFun), Emilia Pardi (Project Manager Lead – Bag Innovation), Giuseppe Giaccardi (GiaccardiAssociati), Alessia Mariotti, Marianna Marcucci (Invasioni Digitali), Laura Calandriello Cristiano May Emiliana Mellone e Roberta Milano (Cleanap) Andrea Bartoli (Farm Cultural Park), Francesco Lipari (Cityvision), Sara Petrone (Consigliere Comunale di Salerno), Alberto Ramaglia, Jesse Marsh (Atelier), Massimo Ciuffini (Osservatorio nazionale sharing mobility), Daniele Ficociello Federica Marchetti Zaira Magliozzi Giulia Mura e Roberto Sommatino (Superficial Studio), Andrea Lorenzini (MemEx).

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of — In the Featured Photo: The future of public transportation in Milan, from electric public transportation to electric scooters.

About the Author /

> Matteo d'Aloja: Head of External Relations & Communications of Ghella SpA, one of the main Italian infrastructure companies. > Salvatore Di Dio is co-founder and managing director of the design lab for innovation PUSH,

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