The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Bicycling growing in the Eternal City

When people here in the US think of cities with a strong bike culture in Europe, the places that come to mind are Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris, but Rome is rarely on that list. The picture that most Americans have when they think of the Eternal City is riding a motorino around the Colosseum, or as Eddie Izzard puts it most Italians riding around saying 'ciao' like in Roman Holiday. But thanks to a new bike sharing program started last year, that culture is beginning to change.

Bicycling in Paris.

This past week I visited Paris, Venice and Rome, and while in Paris I had planned to check out the Vélib system for this post. Paris is becoming an increasingly bike friendly city, and despite the rash of vandalism lately, the Vélib system still remains convienient and widely used by commuters and tourists alike. I was pleasantly shocked however to see that Rome has begun its transformation into a bike city much like Paris or Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

Launched in July of last year, the system is being run by ATAC, the transit agency that runs the buses and metro in Rome, and its its fare system works much like the Vélib system, being free to subscribers for the first half hour then charging 1 Euro for 30 minutes after. Stations are mostly clustered in the Centro Storico (Historic Center) of Rome, though there are a few around La Sapienza University and in Ostia Antica along the coast. On the Google map for the stations, you can even click on each station to see how many bikes are available at any given time.

The new bike sharing system in Rome.

The bikes are of a more sturdy and conventional design like most Dutch bikes as opposed to the aerodynamic Velib. Each has a rack in back and a basket in front, making them pretty convenient to take a few items. However this stolid design isn't dissuading the ever fashionable Italians from riding them or riding bikes of their own. The bikes I saw Rome, most of them very new, were ridden by ordinary looking Romans, dressed in street clothes or women in their necessary high heels. It seems the culture of bicycling is being seen to be just a normal part of life, even for the Romans.

System map of the bike share in the Centro Storico.

Two years ago when I lived in Rome, I would not have dared ridden a bike in this city, so the transformation, albeit still very small, is remarkable. Judging by the experience of so many cities such as in Paris, New York and Copenhagen, where bicycling had for so long been seen as ridiculous or dangerous concept, but is now embraced proudly as part of the city's life, I think it's an encouraging sign to see such growth in such a short time.

Erik Bootsma is a board member of the National Civic Art Society and of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. 


Add a comment »

it is nice when bicycling is seen as being safe enough of an activity for women to take to it

In the USA it is mostly a male dominated sports activity and cycling is definitely not seen as a primary transportation option as it is overseas- even by the most energetic and devoted males in the USA.

This really needs to change.
I would love to see lots and lots of different kinds of people riding every day for every day reasons other than racing or competition.

In Europe- one often sees pretty gals w/o helmets or fancy racing gear just like this - all over the place, on sit up posture bicycles- with racks, often carrying home groceries or whatever.
It is not essential to have the latest carbon fiber bike frame or the most up to date lycra . One can wear ordinary clothes and sport ordinary shoes- or fancy shoes like this pretty Italian model in the photograph.

by w on Dec 2, 2009 11:49 am • linkreport


I recognized the Paris Opera in the background of the picture at the last minute before posting this.

That would be a pretty French model on a bicycle !!!

by w on Dec 2, 2009 12:16 pm • linkreport

Biking in Italy is interesting. In the north, places like Pisa, Milano, Padova, Verona and others biking is very very common. They have bike share programs, dedicated infrastructure and streets that allow for biking (the cobblestones can make it more or less fun depending on your opinion)

As you go down, towards rome biking drops off (rare in rome)....and by the time you get to Naples you wont see a single bike.

Funny how that see the same thing with europe as a whole. Copenhagen as the biking mecca with very little ridership in the south....

The USA is a little bit like that too. People bike in Portland. In Miami, not so much.

by J on Dec 2, 2009 3:59 pm • linkreport

..yep - I have also noticed this you get to Switzerland the popularity of cycling begins to pick up- even with the mountains they seem to have a lot more cyclists than in most of Italy.

You get to Germany and it starts to get out of control.
In Freiburg at times it appears that entire population is on a bicycle.

by w on Dec 2, 2009 4:06 pm • linkreport

From my experience visiting Rome, I am pleasantly surprised to learn that biking is being embraced by the city.

One thing you didn't mention though is Rome's incredible need for bike access. Rome has an appallingly poor public transit system for a city of its size. With almost 3 million people, it has only 24 miles of subway - yes a quarter of that in DC. Or one sixth the number of miles and lines found in Madrid, which is a similar sized city.

@J Your north south model is generally true, but Barcelona breaks the mold with lots of bike lanes and Bicing, a wildly popular bike sharing system.

by Frank on Dec 2, 2009 10:48 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the comments. Speaking of women biking, that's the inspiration for writing this post. I suspected something was up when I saw the bikesharing and a few people daring the streets. But I knew that biking had caught on when I saw a woman in high heels and a miniskirt parking her bike in Campo di Fiore.

Frank: Yes, Rome has very poor public transit, thats part of the reason that people are moving to bikes. One of my ex-pat friends there says it takes him 20 mins to get to San Giovanni from where he lives by San Pietro on a bike. That same ride on a bus would take almost twice that long.

I lived in Trastevere and in the 4 months I lived in Rome I never took it. This past trip was the first time I ever did.

Part of the problem with the metro is that they tried to build it shallow and every time they move 40 feet or so they run into archaeological sites and have to pause. I heard the plans for the newest line involve putting it deeper below ground. They still have problems like we saw with proposals for M Street in Georgetown, where do you put the entrance? This is especially tough in the packed in Centro Storico.

Rome did a great job of cleaning up the city with a congestion zone, when you see how traffic is in Naples, it was like that in Rome 20 years ago I'm told. The pollution of the two stroke motorinos and diesel buses is choking and nasty and to me, the worst is that it grimes up all of the architecture. My thoughts on Rome is that they should ban cars from the Centro Storico except on the major routes, and transform the bus lines into streetcars. They should designate bike routes throughout and in general keep the area free of cars and more importantly the pollution.

by Boots on Dec 3, 2009 8:01 am • linkreport

Rome already has lots of street cars. But they're street cars, not light rail, and are no faster than buses or any other traffic.

I'm not too worried about Centro Storico. It's quite walkable. But there's a lot of Rome far beyond the center, and that Rome is shockingly poor, and poorly served by transit.

It really saddened me, but southern Italy, beginning in Rome, feels like a failed state. Italy is a political disaster. It's wildly unstable and it translates into an awful standard of living - and a lack of vision for its metro infrastructure. Naples suffers the same fate. It's shocking compared to the rest of Europe. Many write this off as dark side of "Mediterranean" culture. Meanwhile Spain, a much poorer country, is a transit paradise.

by Frank on Dec 3, 2009 8:24 am • linkreport

Well once you get to Naples the Camorra and the Mafia in Sicily are still facts of life. I love Italy but I agree that it is shockingly different from Northern Europe. Its a shame in the south but still things are improving. Naples though when I was there felt like a third world city with first world architecture. While a little crazy it still gave it a vibrancy that was amazing and fun. What Italy needs to do is keep its lively culture while improving what it can.

Transit there still is a joke for the most part but the bike is a good sign. I even saw a car share system springing up in Rome. Not bad for a place that really sees cars as status symbols.

by Boots on Dec 3, 2009 9:02 am • linkreport

Don't get me wrong, I loved Naples a lot more than Rome. It's craziness is part of of what makes it special. But on the other hand, constantly having to face down vendors who regularly rip you off as a challenge to see if you're paying attention really started to wear on me. I know it's part of the "culture" but . . .

The other point I wanted to emphasize is that it's not really a simple North/South thing the way people present it.

Barcelona is a shining example of what this blog supports: Pro-pedestrian, pro-biking urban planning. Meanwhile Madrid has the second most extensive and fastest growing metro in Europe - and not surprisingly it is also the fastest growing city in Europe. And to top it off, both cities are linked with the fastest growing HSR network in Europe.

Northern European countries like the UK, Ireland and Germany could learn a lot from their southern neighbor.

by Frank on Dec 3, 2009 9:56 am • linkreport

It doesn't just grime up the ancient architecture, it seriously damages it. All the sulphur and nitrogen oxides that come out of vehicle emissions react to form sulphuric acid, which isn't great for calcite-based stone. So, the emissions are literally eating away at history.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 3, 2009 10:09 am • linkreport

Frank, I think some of your comments about Italy are extreme. Does Italy have some political problems? Sure. Is it a "failed state, a political disaster, wildly unstable, and has awful standards of living?" Not really.
While Italy during the cold war has had more governments than any other democracy in the world, the same people and the same parties were in government making it de facto pretty stable. Hence the fact that, besides having monuments, pasta, pizza and motorinos, it is also one of the most advanced economies in the world (it is not a member of the G8 by random pick after all). Also, as far as standards of living are concerned, I am really not sure what you are comparing them to: is it Copenhagen or is it Detroit, Baltimore, parts of DC?
I have seen people live in far worst conditions in parts of the US than I have in southern Italy – at least in Italy poor people can access medical facilities, urban schools are free and generally of good standards (no metal detectors in schools), university education is pretty much free etc. Also, the comparison with Spain is a common one. I love Spain and I am always a fan of visiting Barcellona and Madrid but you can't compare the hardship of building a transit system in Barcellona with building one in Rome. Every time you move as much as a cobble stone in Rome you unearth a new archeological site. Also, Spain might have been smarter and quicker than Italy on investing in infrastructure in the past ten years, however, now they have the highest public deficit in Europe, double the unemployment rate than Italy and a housing bubble that has left new, beautiful, pedestrian and bicycle friendly neighborhoods totally foreclosed. So, even though I agree with you on the need of infrastructure you also need to be able to afford it. Spain, like Ireland, are two great examples of bubble economies that went on a spending frenzy.
As an Italian immigrant to the US I would sum things up this way: as a professional I rather live in the US (more job opportunities), as a poor or working class person I would much rather live in Italy (better quality of life).

by Andrea Limauro on Dec 3, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

My comments about Italy were in comparrison to other European countries, not America. American "values" when it comes to the poor, healthcare, cities, infrastructure, social issues, etc. are a disaster and an international embarrasment. Sadly, most Americans haven't travelled enough to understand this.

I have many, many Italian friends. And like you, most of them have left. I'm 1/2 second generation Italian / 1/2 first generation Irish. I've lived in London and Madrid, in addition to NY, Boston and Philly - and travelled extensively around Europe. My reaction to Italy wasn't disdain, but sadness. Why must such a great country have so many issues? Unfortunately, it struggles with the same political environment we have in America . . . right wing polititicians and policies that promote poor education. Vilification of minorities. A way too influential church. Not to mention corruption on a level beyond what most democracies tolerate.

And then there's Berlusconi. Most people outside Italy don't realize that he funds thugs to reinforce his social policies. They've been quite active recently bombing the largest gay club in the coutry and killing many other gays in random attacks. My Italian friends have, on more than one occasion, described themselves a political refugees. And don't even get me started on gay marriage / civil unions.

As for finances, in 2008, Italy's public debt was 105% of GDP. Spain's was 35%. Also Spain's GDP per capita is basically the same as Italy now, better if you go by the CIA World Handbook. Granted Spain's is suffering now, but for decades, Itally held the crown for the most irresponsible budgets. So bad, in fact, that the fear has been Italy might be the country to destabilize the Euro.

I hope that Italy can change. The citizens of a country as great as Italy deserve much better.

by Frank on Dec 3, 2009 1:40 pm • linkreport

many Americans visit Spain , Italy , and France but totally ignore Germany unless they are military or in business- and they have, by far, the greatest and most up to date HSR outside of Japan. It is the best designed and runs flawlessly. They have incredible urban planning and hardly waste any land to suburban sprawl- and yet have the second most extensive highway system in the world.

As for bicycle cities- go to Freiburg, Berlin, Munich, Speyer, Tubingen, Muenster, or Koln- all of these places have excellent infrastructure and accomodate large numbers of cyclists.

Americans need to look to this country as they do Denmark and the Netherlands. A lot can be learned from their design and experience with transit and urban planning.

by w on Dec 3, 2009 3:26 pm • linkreport

W. I agree about Germany, I think you too are a Germanophile. Berlin is pretty much flat as a pancake and spread out, an ideal bike city. I regret not doing it more there. Munich when i was there was 5degrees C in August, so I didn't bike there, but all and all they are pretty open to biking, though not nearly to the extent of Amsterdam.

by Boots on Dec 3, 2009 8:28 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us