Metro Centric / Flickr

During its current stretch of terrible pollution, a single fare gets you a full day of unlimited travel.

Fans of cheap public transit could do worse than head for Milan this month.

Between December 17 and 24, Northern Italy’s largest city is offering bus, tram, and metro travel at a bargain rate. Buy a single fare for €1.50 ($1.65) and you get unlimited travel anywhere in the city for 24 hours. A similar move was brought in last week by Milan’s near neighbor Turin, which introduced two days of free transit last Thursday and Friday.

These cheap or no-cost fares might sound like good news, but the reason they’re being introduced is anything but. Milan—and the Po Valley in general—is going through an unusually extended period of terrible smog. For 20 long days, a fog of toxic air has hung over Milan, trapped close to the ground by temperature inversion. While the region has plenty of industry, the main cause of this smog is traffic. Milan is a car-addicted city whose congestion was judged as worse than anywhere else in Europe or North America last year. If the city has any hope of cutting the pollution levels in its air, it’s going to have to slash the number of cars on the road. But will short-term cheap transit be enough?

To be fair, the fare slash is by no means the city’s only plan for busting pollution. Milan introduced a central congestion charge zone in 2012, while it is also gradually joining up pedestrian areas to create an ultimately car-free city center. During the emergency period, its other measures involve making city bike-share rentals free, and offering free transit tickets for groups of adults and children, a move that’s already been introduced to deter parents from driving their kids to school. The dirtiest diesel vehicles have also been banned from the streets during the pollution peak.

If Milanese leave their cars parked during the smog alert, these efforts may indeed help to lower pollution from its current high peak. Emergency pollution measures like Milan’s are nonetheless becoming common across Europe. Paris introduced alternate driving days, free transit and stricter speed limits during a pollution peak last year. This autumn, Madrid vowed to follow so far unenforced anti-pollution laws to the letter and introduce similar moves during peak pollution periods. These laws may have a clear effect in one area—at least they raise public awareness that there is a problem, and that motor traffic is its source.

But as a long-term fix, such initiatives will probably do little or nothing about pollution. Instead they’ll only really work if they’re part of a broader scheme for slashing road traffic, something Paris and other European cities are already tackling. Such schemes may seem bold, but they’re being created against a backdrop of high mortality. The European Environment Agency believes that air pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths in the E.U. every year. If Milan is truly going to tackle its filthy air, it will need not just a temporary transit fare cut, but to take on the systematic, long-term objective to slashing the number of cars on the road.

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