Cruising the cobblestones

ROME — In the busy streets of Rome, most drivers dodge at least one accident a day. A constant rush hour pulses through ancient neighborhoods connected by streets barely wide enough for a single car.

Recently the city has thrown cyclists into the mix with its first bike-sharing program, an idea embraced by many cities in recent years, from Paris to Washington, D.C.

Last June, Rome placed 250 bikes around 19 popular locations, including the Pantheon and the Parliament building, and throughout the historic center — a low-traffic zone of more than 3 square miles and the most pedestrian-friendly area of the city.

“Rome is a very difficult city,” said Antonio Musso, director of the Transportation Engineering Programme at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The city’s structural limits and restricted access make it difficult for private vehicles to move around.”

Bike-sharing is new to Rome, but not to Italy. Dozens of smaller towns have successfully implemented bike-sharing programs thanks to the traditional popularity of cycling in this country. Milan also has a program, but faces similar safety challenges:

Rome faces even more challenges than Milan in promoting cycling on its streets.

“Rome doesn’t have the same affection to biking like other cities have, especially in the north,” Musso said. “After all, the city was built on seven hills so the Romans’ lack of enthusiasm for bikes is expected.”

But for residents like Judith Barrett, who lives near the Pantheon for three months out of the year and never goes farther than a few blocks, Rome n’ Bike is a perfect fit. “This is great,” Barrett said, “every morning the bike is here waiting, as soon as I walk out my door.”

Rome politicians who pushed “Rome n’ Bike” hoped it could reduce smog and traffic.

“Following the example of other big European cities,” said Rome Councilman Dario Esposito during last year’s inauguration, “we want to show that Rome, too, can revolutionize its transportation habits.”

However, without proper bike lanes to make space for new cyclists, there might not be a safe way to expand Rome’s bike-sharing scheme.

Italy’s National Statistics Institute reports that every year 50,000 car accidents occur in Rome, where 97 percent of people — out of a population of 2.7 million — use a car or a moped. There are fewer than 300 bike accidents recorded each year, but at the moment there are few cyclists. In fact, riding a bike in Rome is three times more risky than riding a moped, and has a higher mortality rate than driving a car.

For now, most of the Rome n’ Bike users are residents who bike to go to work or traverse the historic center. A recent survey by Cemusa, the company behind Rome n’ Bike, found that 92 percent of users ride for under 30 minutes. (The first half hour is free.) 
 
 


At the moment, key metro stops, such as Coliseum, don't have bike stations. The only way to move around that popular area is by foot or by riding a crowded bus.

“If bike-sharing is going to work,” said Rome transportation expert Antonio Musso, “bikes must be located nearby points of access to other kinds of public transportation like buses and subway stations.”

But for now, expanding the Rome n’ Bike initiative isn’t in the city’s plans.

Read more bicycle-related dispatches:

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