When I was a kid in Pittsburgh and Connecticut, waking up to find snow on the ground was always exciting, because it meant the possibility of a snow day – a day off from school due to dangerous road conditions. I’d crouch over the radio, holding my breath for the longed-for announcement that my school district was closed, so I’d be free to play all day in the wonderful snow.
It snows very rarely here in Milan, never enough to close the schools. But in January we almost had an analogous phenomenon: smog days.
Northern Italy normally gets enough rain in the winter to wash away the poisons belched into the air by oil-burning heating systems and far too many cars. But not this year: we went nearly sixty days with no rain at all. As we enjoyed the sunshine, the poisonous gases and particulates accumulated to dangerous levels. After the air quality had been officially “terrible” for nine days in a row, environmental laws forced many communities to close their streets to traffic. In Milan, we had several Sundays of no cars at all, which was very pleasant; the streets were delightfully quiet. However, this was not likely to have much effect on the smog, because many Milanese go out of town on the weekends anyway and do their driving elsewhere.
The next solution tried was four days of “alternate license plates” – on even-numbered dates, only cars with even-numbered license plates could be on the road, and vice-versa for odd dates. This meant that many more people were forced to take public transport, so, to lighten the load on the buses, trams, and subways, the regional government also decreed that all middle- and high-school students would start school at 10:00 rather than 8:00. (The kids, of course, were heartbroken.) There was even the threat of a no-cars Friday, which would have meant closing all city and state government offices and schools, but then it rained just enough for a last-minute reprieve.
We’ve since had enough wind and rain to clear the air thoroughly, but the lesson gets clearer as the air gets murkier: Italy has a serious, long-term pollution problem that we can’t depend on the weather to solve. Real, long-term solutions in sight? Few. For now, as for so many years, hopes of truly effective change appear to be lost in a sea of political wrangles, while more and more cars continue to squeeze into Italy’s smog-choked cities.