Cycling in Milan with BikeMi

To what lengths will one go to keep a streak alive? I’m testing this now as I have a little daily cycling streak going on. My workplace is participating in the National Bike Challenge which rewards teams of riders for cycling during the supposedly cycling friendly months of May through September. The system is set up to reward frequent riding rather than longer rides. Every day that I ride at least one mile I earn my team 20 points plus the number of miles ridden. So if I go the minimum, I earn 21 points and on days I bike commute to work and back, I earn 29 points. This has given me the motivation to try and see how many consecutive days I can ride a bike. My personal challenge comes not from fitting cycling into a daily routine, since I’m already a committed year-round bike commuter, but from seeing if I can get on a bike everyday that I’m away from home. I have several trips planned during the challenge period, some domestic, some international. The first of these is a two-week family trip to Italy starting with a conference in Milan, followed by a week with most of my immediate family in Lucca, and capped off by a few days with just Papa Bear and the kids in Florence.

For the first time ever, we’ll be staying almost exclusively in apartments rather than hotels. I’ve already come to appreciate how much better it is to have even a small apartment to relax, spread out, and cook simple meals in rather than being cramped in a tiny hotel room. When I chose the apartment in Milan through HomeAway months ago (pre-Challenge) I knew it was a couple miles and two subway lines away from the conference venue. I figured I’d walk or take public transport and get to see a little more of the city than if I stayed right across the street. Then I did a little digging and discovered that Milan has an extensive bikeshare system called BikeMi. Hey, that little voice in my head said, you can earn a few more points for the challenge if you ride a bike to and from the conference. And so, I decided to try BikeMi, despite never having used the reportedly awesome bikeshare in my own city because I have my own bike.

Fresh off the journey involving planes, bus, walk, Metro, walk some more, settle the family into the apartment I spied a bikeshare kiosk right outside our apartment.

BikeMi station
By the time I went to fetch one they were all gone. No worries, there’s another kiosk by the nearby Metro. OK, ready to go! The family took a photo of me in front of the kiosk for posterity, then went off on their merry way.

preparing for first BikeMi ride
I quickly discovered that BikeMi requires one to register before riding rather than registering on the spot and allowing one to swipe a credit card at the beginning and end of the journeys. Savvy travelers would have read the website and registered in advance. Oops, our Metro station didn’t have an ATM office (the city’s transit authority, not a bank ATM) where the registrations are handled so I took the subway to one that did. The nice man behind the counter explained that I could buy a one day, one week, or one year membership. I figured I would be riding each of three days so I bought the week pass for 6 euros. Registration required a credit card and email address. He gave me a slip of paper with an authorization code and I selected a four-digit passcode.

To release a bike from the kiosk, I entered my registration code and passcode and a sign indicated which numbered spot on the kiosk had been unlocked. I lifted the bike off the rack, adjusted the seat, and was on my way. Wait, I had mapped a route from my original Metro station, not the one to which I had just traveled to register. Registration came with a map of the city with each numbered kiosk clearly marked with a little flag. Great, except I didn’t even really know which direction I was facing and the sun was obscured by clouds. (And I’m an absolute moron when it comes to spatial orientation.) What the hell, I’ll just set off until I can find a street sign or landmark and navigate from there. Except that the streets of Milan are each about 200 feet long and end in some sort of piazza whose name is too small to discern on the map.

The streets of Milan are interesting for an American to negotiate. There are a few dedicated separated bike lanes (with curbs!) as well as some involving no more than a stripe of paint but many roads have no special accommodation.

separated bike lane with bike signal
There are lanes and signals and, presumably, rules but they’re all more of a suggestion than a mandate. As in DC, every type of traveler (driver, motorcyclist, bicyclist, pedestrian) breaks the rules but it seems to be expected here so everyone is more or less looking out for everyone else. In other words, despite the chaos I didn’t really fear for my life because people are accustomed to watching out for other scofflaws and therefore spend less time talking or texting on their phones. (I understand this is a nonscientific survey but for my sanity that’s what I chose to believe as motored vehicles whizzed past me at alarming proximity.) Also, every third traveler on the road is on a bicycle so the city seems to have achieved that mythical critical mass that bike advocates are always going on about. Eventually, after much trial and error I made it to the conference.

The next day, I got to “my” kiosk early enough to snag a bike and set off on the most direct route, confident I would get to the university in no time. Except that one of the “roads” was a pedestrian only zone and another was one way the wrong way. After several course corrections, I was able to use the sun to figure out I was going west when I should’ve been going east. (So I’m not a complete and absolute moron about directions.) After 40 minutes of what should have been a 20-minute ride, I rolled up to the university once again. I was sanguine about these experiences because no one I knew saw me stopping every 10 feet to consult my map in vain and, hey, the extra miles earned me a few extra points for my team!

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