The wheel deal

A bicycle-friendly mayor of Rome means the future could be brighter for Rome's cyclists

Rome may not be trying to reinvent the wheel, but it is trying to make its streets more welcoming for pedal power. Economic and environmental factors are making bicycles a more attractive form of transport in the heavily motorised metropolis, prompting both local government officials and independent groups to advocate cycling.

The Eternal City is behind Europe in the road race: while cycling in Europe accounts for about seven per cent of transport use, in Italy it is only four per cent. Italy has one of the world's highest ratios of cars to people with around 970 vehicles per 1,000 adults, according to figures reported by Public Radio International (PRI), a non-profit US-based news source that broadcasts internationally.

After a slow start some local authorities, especially in the north of Italy, are promoting bike-sharing, according to the European Cyclists Federation (ECF), a lobbyist group which encourages cycling initiatives and improved riding conditions. Citing Italy's transport ministry, the ECF reported that as of 2013 about five million Italians ride bikes during the week, tripling the number that did in 2001. Furthermore, in 2011 and 2012 more bikes than cars were sold in Italy.

The economy is partially responsible for the drop in car sales. After the global financial crisis people were less inclined to make large purchases that continue to rack up expenses even after the deal is closed. The young are hesitant to spend money for driving lessons, especially in the face of bleak job prospects.

Roberto Vavassori, president of Italian automotive association ANFIA, told PRI that many environmentally conscientious people don’t feel the need for vehicles when there are cheaper, greener options with the abundance of public transport available. “I see this tendency where youngsters, people under 30, don't necessarily want to have a driving license,” he said. “We have more than 10 per cent of youngsters not getting a license because they feel it is no longer necessary to own a car or even use a car.”

Biking as a form of public transportation came to Rome later than other areas of Europe and the capital's public transport company ATAC had to take over the bike-sharing programme in 2009 when the city failed to come to an agreement with the private company that wanted to invest in the scheme. The bikes were available, the organisation was in full swing, the servicing was excellent, but then the comune failed to back the initiative with advertising and promotion. The company eventually pulled out.

After the transition ATAC, which is badly in debt, reported that 50 of the 1,000 bikes disappeared in less than a month, and even those who previously used the bikes enthusiastically have now given up. However, lobbyist groups and government officials are still trying to put a positive spin on cycling.

The Italian Federation of Friends of the Bike (FIAB) petitions for new cyclist-friendly laws such as extending personal injury insurance to cover bike commutes (see recent protests by mothers in Rome and Milan over the dangers of taking their children to school by bike) and campaigns for cyclists. It also takes an annual cycling census to gauge the biking climate of Rome.

In order to achieve this goal, FIAB managed in March 2013 to get a handful of politicians to sign a declaration on cycling recommending that the share of those who use cycling as their main form of transport should be increased to 20 per cent of the total by 2020, safety initiatives to halve cyclist and pedestrian fatalities and injuries, a 30 kph speed limit for vehicles in urban areas, and pushing the present 6,000-km Italian EuroVelo, a cycle route network, to its full 20,000 km.

Optimistic and outspoken cycling advocate mayor Ignazio Marino has put some of his plans in motion when he restricted the movement of vehicular traffic around the Colosseum last August. He set an example for the public by biking to the office on his first day of work, though for many their commute to work will be uphill. There are few bike lanes, motorised traffic is undisciplined, bike theft is high (most cyclists know what it is to have had a bike stolen) and, in case one were to forget, Rome is built on seven hills.

Last year thousands of protesters gathered to express their frustration at the safety conditions in Rome, which is ranked as the tenth European city for biker fatalities. Marino has acknowledged the danger and the trials of the relatively unprotected type of transport.

“At the present time with the traffic, with the aggressiveness of some of the drivers in Rome, it can be scary,” Marino said. This only served to spur on his efforts to pedestrianise the historic centre—efforts that have garnered mixed responses from the public.

Among those happy with the change are cycling advocacy groups such as Legambiente and City Bike who, along with FIAB, celebrate biking with events like the Giretto d’Italia, in which 23 participating cities compete to see which has the most urban cyclists. The event took place in May last year, although Rome did not participate.

If you are looking for guided bike tours, the Eternal City has plenty of groups offering day trips or extended excursions. Bici & Baci’s three-hour tours depart daily from its base at Via Cavour 302, weaving a path via the Quirinale hill to end at the Colosseum, where bikers see hot spots along the way such as the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. Bici & Baci also offers tours in English and personalised itineraries for exploring Rome. Top Bike Rental at Via Carlo Botta 11 has several types of bikes available and offers private or group tours in English. You can choose from different themed tours like Panoramic Rome, City Centre, or the Catacombs and the Parco degli Acquedotti.

 Sarah Barchus

From the 5 Feb paper edition Wanted in Rome

Side Notes

There are three EuroVelo routes running through Italy, hitting major cities like Rome. The EuroVelo website maps out the routes (completed, planned, and unfinished portions) .

To view the popular bike paths crisscrossing Rome or to map out your own route

There are various shops that sell bikes in the historic centre. Collaltibici in Via del Pellegrino 87, Di Bartolomeo in Piazza S. Caterina della Rota 93 and Gori, Via Panico 78, but the main place to look is along Via Portuense.

Villa Borghese offers several bike rental services including Bici Pincio at Viale di Villa Medici and Viale della Pineta (tel. 066784374) and Ascol Bike at various locations in the park, .