Bikes are outselling cars in cash-strapped Italy but while cyclists in Milan say their city is ready for a two-wheel lifestyle, there are daily nuisances for riders on Rome’s trafficked streets.
Some cities in Italy have bike-sharing initiatives, bike paths and public awareness schemes, while cyclists are still barely tolerated in others.
“The economic crisis has had repercussions for everyone, including in transport. There’s been a small revolution in terms of lifestyle,” said Giulietta Pagliaccio, head of the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle.
“We have seen a lot of people who have re-discovered this means of transport. Its ease, its simplicity, its speed for short distances… ” she said.
There were 2,000 more bicycles sold than cars in Italy in 2011 — a differential that rose to more than 200,000 units last year, according to figures from an association of biking businesses and the transport ministry.
The car sector has been hit by what the head of auto giant Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, dubs “Carmageddon” — with a 20-percent drop in sales in 2012.
Pagliaccio said Rome is a particularly “difficult” city for cyclists and that in general conditions are worse in the southern half of the country, with poorer quality roads and few bicycle paths.
She said mentalities were beginning to change — except for a few motor die-hards “who would drive from their bedroom to the kitchen if they could” — but that politicians remain “very behind” in terms of bike-friendly policies.
“They are afraid of losing votes. It’s terrifying since everything is done in this perspective, without a long-term urban vision,” she said.
Piero Nigrelli, head of bicycles at the Ancma association of biking businesses, said it was “breathtaking to what point politicians lack awareness of the bicycle’s value”.
He said Germany boasts some seven million cycling tourists a year who generate nine billion euros ($11.5 billion) in turnover, and only “a modest investment in bike paths” would be needed to bring such benefits to Italy.
In the Italian capital, those who use existing routes complain of daily trials, from junk strewn across the paths, to stretches along the riverbank which periodically flood and in one case a path blocked by a sprawling Roma camp.
Famed for its annual Giro d’Italia bike race, Italy has yet to embrace bicycles as a form of transport, though a “Bikemi” bike-sharing scheme in Milan has been enthusiastically received by locals and sales in foldable models are on the up.
Specialist shops in the economic capital have begun stocking bikes specifically designed for urban life, such as the British Brompton model, which folds up neatly and has a handle so it can be pulled along like a suitcase.
The world’s oldest bicycle-making company, Bianchi, famed for kitting out biking champions such as Fausto Coppi, has branched out into electric bicycles to meet a growing demand from Italians keen to swap four wheels for two.
“Customers are asking now for high-range commuter models, they are looking for a long-term investment that supports the idea that they are turning away from the car,” Bob Ippolito, head of Bianchi, told AFP.
Commuter bikes are now the company’s fastest selling models — up 35 percent last year — which is partly because some customers “instead of having two cars, now prefer to have a car and a bicycle”, he said.
Ancma’s Nigrelli insists Italy must play to its strengths as “a kingdom of taste, design and fashion, and make the (bicycle) trend a cool and innovative thing”.
But in Rome at least, it will take more than a fleeting fad to get citizens to swap their comfortable gas-guzzlers for a sweaty peddle through the streets.
A bike-sharing scheme launched in Rome in 2008 with 450 bikes at stations near monuments such as the Colosseum failed miserably and had to be scrapped.
“We tried, but the bikes kept getting stolen,” said the city’s mayor Gianni Alemanno, who is accused by critics of wasting 1.8 million euros on the scheme.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]