OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds

OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds
Rome's bike paths may not be extensive, but they are scenic. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
As cities across Italy aim to get more and more people into the saddle, regular cyclist Jessica Phelan says Rome isn’t as bike-unfriendly as it’s made out to be – though there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

One May afternoon in 2018, I joined the crowd lining the Piazza del Popolo to watch the Giro d’Italia bike race finish in Rome for the first time in decades. 

As the pack whizzed past on their loop of the square, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Venezia, Circus Maximus, the Colosseum and the Forum, I was close enough to see the annoyance on the athletes’ faces as, one after another, they pulled over to adjust their tyres to better grip the treacherous cobbles.

Photo: Jessica Phelan/The Local

After the third lap, the intervals between them disappearing and reappearing seemed to grow longer. It emerged that the cyclists had complained the roads were a danger to race on; organizers froze the stopwatch, the Giro ended prematurely, and it hasn’t returned to the capital since.

See, the newspapers crowed: Rome is no city for cyclists.

That’s what everyone has been telling me ever since I moved here four and a half years ago. The typical reaction when I admitted to being one of the 0.6 percent of residents who regularly get around the city by bike was somewhere between scepticism and alarm (I seem to recall one friend exclaiming “Oddio!” and casting her eyes heavenward).

Yes, Rome is covered in cobbles that are somehow both uneven and slippery at once. Yes, even the roads that are paved are warped by tree roots, pockmarked by broken tarmac or disappearing into potholes. And yes, the drivers are… unpredictable.

You’ll never catch me arguing that Rome is an easy city to cycle in. But can you cycle here, and should you? I believe yes and yes.

Cyclists in front of the Spanish Steps. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

I got a bike within hours of moving to Rome, not entirely by choice. On my first evening my boyfriend, who had landed a week ahead of me, presented me with a heavy-duty lock and a helmet and told me my belated birthday present was outside. The gift was a purple second-hand racing bike made by Italian company Atala and christened La Bellissima thanks to a passerby who one day sized it up and remarked, “Mamma mia, bellissima questa bici” (“Goodness me, what a very beautiful bike”). 

Some of my first days in Rome were spent adjusting, rapidly, to my new steed as it flew alarmingly fast down various hills, juddering to a stop outside the tax office and potential apartments. As the weeks went on, I’d take sightseeing rides through St Peter’s Square and the Roman Forum where no cars are allowed, or zip to my Italian lessons passing cars jammed in traffic on one of the many mornings the metro was on strike.

By that point I’d cycled regularly in cities in the UK, France, Germany and Japan. Rome stacks up differently, but not always worse. In Japan, for instance, where cyclists are considered a marginally faster species of pedestrian, bikes share the pavement with people on foot – which is all very relaxing unless you have to get somewhere in a hurry. And if you switch to the road, drivers often don’t spot you because they’re simply not expecting cyclists to be there.

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In Rome, in contrast, I’ve found the chaos of the roads can actually prove an advantage. Drivers here don’t expect anyone, themselves included, to follow the rules, which means they have to be more alert and ready to react. They’re also accustomed to scooters weaving in and out of traffic. It doesn’t mean they’ll be considerate or even sensible, but at least they’re quick to swerve or brake. To date – facciamo le corna – I’ve never collided with a car, only been tripped up by tram tracks one rainy night.

And while bike paths aren’t nearly as extensive here as they are in Berlin or Paris, they do exist – around 250 kilometres of them currently, with plans for 150 km more. Rome boasts one of the most scenic paths of any European capital: the one that winds along the Tiber through the heart of the city, separated from cars by 12-metre-high flood walls. 

The cycle path along the River Tiber. Photo: Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In fact, Rome already has many of the ingredients that should make it a cycling city: it’s relatively compact, the centre is largely flat, it has long months of good weather and – most urgently – a serious lack of other good transport options.

Open up a navigator app and look up almost any route across the city: the cycling directions, which Google Maps only recently added for Rome, are usually quicker than waiting for patchy public transport and, depending on traffic, can even be faster than a car.

That’s something that more and more people are discovering as they avoid trains and buses amid the pandemic. Spurred by Covid concerns, several acquaintances have started commuting by bike in recent months; they’re usually surprised to find it’s not only feasible but efficient too.

That’s not to say it’s up to Romans to buy a pair of wheels and fend for themselves. In legendarily bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, people don’t choose to cycle because of a poorly run transport network but because of a well-planned one: bike lanes that lead from residential neighbourhoods to transit hubs, dedicated carriages and racks that make it possible to hop on a train or bus if necessary, and secure cycle parking at stations all contribute to make biking an everyday option rather than a weekend hobby.

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That’s the kind of infrastructure Rome needs if it’s really serious about encouraging cycling post-pandemic. 

The last government’s ‘bonus bici’, a subsidy for people buying brand-new bikes, helped spur sales by around 50 percent last year, local shop owners report. You can’t help but notice that there are more (and more expensive) bicycles on the streets, and newer cyclists riding them. But splashy schemes like this one are neither as accessible nor as long-term as they should be.

I’ve been heartened in recent months to see new bike lanes being added and existing ones improved (it helps that it’s a local election year, and public works that have languished for months suddenly seem to be a priority). Paths that used to be a few lines of paint on the roads are now getting barriers to stop cars from parking in them, and even one infamously useless lane in the south of the city, nicknamed the “cycle obstacle course” because of a series of spitefully placed metal bars, has finally had its offending barriers removed.

That’s a huge part of the puzzle, but not all of it. Making a city truly bike-friendly involves everything from allowing cyclists to go ahead of motorists at traffic lights (something Italy has promised to do) to cracking down on drivers who dangerously double-park (currently with impunity), from encouraging businesses to provide showers for staff who cycle to work (a rarity) to getting apartment buildings to let residents to park their bikes in communal spaces (which two out of three places I’ve lived in here have refused).

These things go for all of Italy’s big cities, of course, but I’d be more willing to bet on wealthy Milan carrying out its post-lockdown promise to transform city streets into havens for cyclists

There’s no more Roman pastime than lamenting the shambolic state of the city, and occasionally – just occasionally – that’s unfair. “We need to dispel the myth that Rome should be considered a bike-unfriendly city,” Stefano Brinchi, the head of municipal transport agency Roma Mobilita, recently declared.

I agree, in the sense that there’s nothing about the city that makes it inherently hostile to cyclists – there’s just a lot that authorities could do to make it friendlier. You need a helmet and a certain amount of confidence to bike in Rome, but you don’t have to be crazy.


Member comments

  1. I agree with both Jessica and Tom. I’ve been cycling here since I arrived in 1994, and was initially viewed as completely “pazzo” (mad) by all Italians I met. Rome has huge potential as a cycling city, but a complete reluctance on the part of politicians to make it safe to do so. The claim of the Commune on the km’s of cycle paths available doesn’t warrant scrutiny, many are completely unsafe, lots are unusable because of the rubbish, the restrictions on speed are ludicrous, I could go on.

    It’s the quickest way to get around many parts of the city (I managed to get from Piazza Santa Emerenziana to Tor Sapienza in the same time as a car once), and could be one of the best places to cycle, but motorists need educating, a huge amount of cyclists need educating (it is not okay to cycle against the traffic unless signposted, red lights apply to cyclists as well, pavements are for people on foot).

    Lastly, it needs to be safer. In 26 years I’ve broken my back (T4) and my left femur and wrist in accidents with cars that were the fault of the drivers. These were both extremely serious accidents that were entirely avoidable. To show you how against cycling the city is, on the first accident the Vigili actually wrote on the accident report that I should have been in a car or on a bus (I was going to work), not cycling.

    We have a Climate Emergency, the city needs to act, and act fast, to make cycling a viable option for everyone. More cycle lanes, and safer cycle lanes, and proper maintenance of existing cycle lanes (look at Paris). More bike parking (it should be compulsory at all supermarkets and large stores for instance), more bike parking outside condominiums (look at London). Buses should have racks for bicycles mounted on the front (look at Chicago).

    Having said all that, I love cycling, and will be out again on Sunday (for Sport and fitness.

  2. Jessica,

    You are the eternal optimist (to go with the Eternal City). I’ve lived a lot of places, both in the United States and overseas, and the only places less hospitable to cyclists are Cairo and Boston.

    I ride often for sport and fitness and find myself stressed out by the traffic and poor road conditions. I gladly drive several hours up to Umbria or Tuscany to get a good ride away from Rome.

    best, Tom

    1. Hi Tom,

      You’re right that cycling in Rome is rarely relaxing, and like you if I’m riding for pleasure I definitely prefer to get out of the city (though while that hasn’t been possible lately due to Covid restrictions I’ve been surprised by how far you can get off-road by following the Grande Raccordo Anulare delle Bici, which is at least partially indicated now by green ‘GRAB’ signs).

      My point is that if you need to get around Rome for work or errands etc, cycling is an efficient way to do it – and with new bike paths it’s (slowly) getting safer too. The more people consider trying it for everyday commuting, the more incentive there’ll be for authorities to factor cyclists into urban planning, and the better it will get for all of us. I guess that’s the optimist in me!

      Happy riding,
      Jessica

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