Veni, vidi, bici: is Rome ready for a cycling “revolution”?
With its seven historic hills, insane traffic, cobblestones and notoriously crumbling roads, Rome has never been the ideal city for cyclists – but with the coronavirus pandemic, things are changing.
As elsewhere, streets emptied by Covid-19 restrictions have given cyclists room to breathe, but a new network of cycle paths and generous government grants to buy bikes have also helped fuel the boom.
One of the converts is Valeria Picchi, a 36-year-old mother of two who sold her scooter last year and bought an electric bike with a children’s trailer.
“I feel like a rare bird,” she told AFP. “People are looking at us, my kids are thrilled … I’m becoming a bit of a celebrity in the neighborhood.”
Many in Rome still balk at the idea of cycling among the crowds of buzzing Vespas, bumpy old Fiats and other jungle kings of Roman traffic.
Cyclists in the Eternal City also have to brave streets so poorly defined that Honda, Piaggio and other motorcycle makers would use them to test the limits of the suspension of their new models.
Picchi was persuaded that she could do much of her commuting and that the school operated on an actual cycle path, protected from traffic – a privilege denied to most Romans, at least for the time being.
It also adopted a government program offering up to 500 euros ($ 600) to people buying a new or used bicycle or electric scooter, which received 119,000 requests last year.
“A revolution is underway and I am part of it!” she exclaimed as she rolled her bike around the park of Villa Leopardi in the northern district of Nomentano on a sunny but cool spring morning.
“We are not Denmark, we also need a revolution in our way of thinking, but we will get there slowly, slowly.”
Painting on cobblestones
Some think that progress is too slow.
“Five years ago you hardly saw bicycles in Rome. Nobody used them except for a walk in the park on Sundays,” said Roberto Scacchi, regional manager of the pro-environment lobby Legambiente.
But speaking to AFP from a main road near Termini station, where a cycle lane was recently added, he said: “I don’t see any revolution … it’s still a 100-car bike. ”
According to the European Cyclists Federation, which has collected data on European capitals from different years, only 0.6% of Romans cycle regularly, compared to 49% of people in Copenhagen.
Mayor Virginia Raggi announced 150 kilometers (90 miles) of new cycle paths last year, adding to an existing network of around 250 kilometers and bringing the city closer to its own ideal target of 500 kilometers.
But Legambiente complains that only 15 kilometers have been driven so far, and most of them are “temporary”, meaning a paint line on the side of the road, with no barriers to protect. car cyclists.
A large cycle lane in the north of the city abruptly turns to cobblestones in some places – rather than being replaced with tar, they have simply been repainted.
‘The bubble could burst’
Giulio Maselli, owner of a bicycle shop in central Rome, reported an increase in sales of at least 50% last year, but said Rome urgently needed to modernize its cycling infrastructure to meet the demand. request.
“Otherwise, this bubble is destined to burst,” he said.
Local authorities insist that they adhere to it. Stefano Brinchi, director of the municipal transport agency Roma Mobilita, said the city was working to foster an “irreversible” transition to greener mobility.
“We need to dispel the myth that Rome should be seen as a city hostile to bicycles,” he said, highlighting, among other things, the grand project of a 45-kilometer ring-road around the city.
The so-called GRAB (Great Bicycle Ring Road) would connect the Colosseum, the Vatican area and the trendy Trastevere district with lesser-known areas east of Rome, like Tor Pignattara, and large parks to the north, like the Aniene nature reserve. .
According to activists, the project is fully funded, officially approved by the city of Rome, and could be ready by the end of 2022.
“It will be the most beautiful cycle path in the world,” said Scacchi de Legambiente. “Today, unfortunately, it is the most beautiful bike path, but in the virtual world.”