Italy's north-south divide in one chart

Naples: poorer than the Czech Republic. Image: Pyrev via pixabay.

Britain isn't the only European country with a north-south divide to contend with. In contrast to blighty, however, in Italy it's the south that's falling behind. According to the Bank of Italy, GDP per person is more than 40 per cent lower in the Mezzogiorno than it is in the centre and north. To put that in context, it’s greater than the difference between the economies of the UK and South Korea.

Compare the country's biggest cities, in fact, and you'll find the disparity is even more extreme than that. This graph shows real GDP per capita at 2010 figures in selected cities since the turn of the century. Below we've also included a map showing their locations; the grey areas mark out southern Italy as defined by the European’s NUTS classification.

Real GDP per capita, $USD 2010. Source: CityMetric Intelligence.

The thing that instantly leaps out at you is that Milan is, give or take, twice as rich as the cities of the south. The municipality accounts for just 2 per cent of Italy’s population, yet generates around 10 per cent of national GDP. It’s most famous for its fashion industry, but it’s also the country’s media, tech, and financial capital.

It is, in the most literal sense, where the money is. Consequently, while Rome was showing signs of stagnation as early as 2004, Milan’s GDP per capita was growing steadily right up until the credit crunch struck in 2008.

At the other end of the scale you'll find Naples and Palermo, the key cities of the south, where (in 2010 figures) GDP per capita has been struggling to get above $25,000 for nearly 15 years now. To translate that into comparable national economies once again, that means that, while Milan is richer than Sweden, Naples is poorer than the Czech Republic. And, unlike Palermo, Naples shows little sign of progressing.

This divide isn’t new – in fact, it’s been in place essentially since unification in 1861, a process led by the northern kingdom of Piedmont and the Nice-born revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi – but the recent recession certainly hasn’t helped. In 2012, Italy’s youth unemployment rate stood at 35 per cent, which is quite shocking enough. In Naples, however, it was 53 per cent, and last winter the city was reported to be flirting with bankruptcy. The Mezzogiornio is making a play to attract more tourists, helped by the government's growing attempts to crack down on the corruption and organised crime which have dominated the region’s economy. Closing the gap, however, won’t be easy.

Unsurprisingly, this economic chasm has led to calls for devolution or even separatism – but not perhaps from the direction one might imagine. The Lega Norda (Northern League) was created from the merger of a number of smaller local parties, and campaigns for a federal Italy, with greater fiscal autonomy for the regions. In other words, what it wants is to reduce the flow of money from rich northern taxpayers to poor southern governments.

At times the league has even advocated full independence for the north under the name of Padania. In last year's general election, however, it received just 4.0 per cent of the vote, down from 8.3 percent five years earlier. Independence may be some time coming.


Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.


It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).

Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.