Found a little bike shop in Rome today, near the Campo de’ Fioro, selling various hipster bikes (fixies, old-fashioned town bikes etc) and Bromptons. I’m not convinced they can be doing a roaring trade though, as Rome is very much a city of roaring motor traffic.
The only places I’ve seen cyclists pootling about is in the older, more maze-like areas of Trastevere, round Campo de’ Fioro, in the Centro Storico, as well as people in lycra doing circuits of the magnificent Villa Doria Pamphilj, a park we’re lucky enough to live near. There are some fine looking, two-lane cycle tracks along the Tiber, but I’ve never seen a single cyclist using them. Not a one. Rome just isn’t a bike city.
If cycling in a city like London can be intimidating, cycling in Rome doesn’t bear thinking about. One persistent element of the city’s auditory landscape is the distinctive uh-eeh-uh-eeh-uh of ambulance sirens. I hear them all the time. Some of them may be hallucinations; I can’t tell. Stop and strain your ears at any moment, it seems, and you’ll hear those sirens. And every time I do, I wonder – splatted pedestrian? Cyclist? Motorino-rider? Or just plain old traffic accident?
New arrivals in Rome – like us – can be easily identified standing perturbed on the pavement, trying to work out how to cross the road. Even at things that resemble zebra crossings it can be a baffling, frightening proposition. In fact, even when you’re wandering the cobbled streets and alleys of the above-mentioned antico parts of town, you have to keep a weather ear out for motos, even van squeezing between the buildings.
Time Out’s Shortlist Rome 2008 provides some statistics that feed that perturbation. It quotes a 2004 study that says Rome is the most dangerous EU capital, with 8.37 dead per 1000; second in the list is Copenhagen, with a mere 1.47 per 1000. It attributes this to the sheer number of vehicles: “around 950 per 1000 population, three times that of London.”
Ironically, this all means travelling on Rome’s (admittedly meagre, two-line) metro, for example, is fairly civilised compared to the London Tube or New York Subway. Natives just don’t seem to want to use the public transport. In their defence, at least you don’t see as many people who absurdly choose to use the descendants of military/agricultural vehicles as town cars, like those odious denizens of Chelsea, for example, with their notorious “tractors”. Rome is a city still largely dominated by scooters and sensibly proportioned vehicles like Smart cars and Cinquecenti. Though it’s amusing when you see a vintage Cinquecento parked beside its modern namesake, or likewise with Minis. Not so Mini now.
So, yes, as much as I miss cycling, I don’t think I’ll be riding the streets of Rome any time soon. Though I would very much like to score a mountain bike to hit the paths of Doria Pamphilij.
Update. Unprompted, my Italian teacher gave us this expression today:
“Roma è uno citta molto caotica.”
Two years later, Sept 2013. I’ve been cycling in Rome about six months now and although I’m still nervous, I’m not dead. In fact, just packed my Brompton up to send it home and I’m missing it already.