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Organizing Bicycling in Rome

February 22, 2009

Yesterday I attended a meeting organized on Facebook (Quelli che osano la BICI a Roma is the group) at a bookshop in Garbatella. As community organization meetings go this was pretty well done.  Several presentations were made about the current situation and upcoming challenges facing those of us who would like to see bicycles become a more normal form of urban transportation in this city.  Discussion was quite civil and much emphasis was placed on the need for bikers to be accepted by the populace as a whole, which requires avoiding antagonistic behavior and forming alliances with others whose goals in some ways overlap.  This was certainly a jab at the tendency of urban bikers toward a self-righteous disdain for non-bikers, especially those driving big death machines (see, there I go!).  There was also a decided non-partisan message in the meeting, to the point of frequent statements that the right has been responsible for a lot of pro-bicycle progress;  I interpreted this as a sign of deep frustration with the failures of the left in Italy recently.

What I was really struck by in this meeting and saw as a real disconnect from the reality of the city, was the praiseworthy but I think unrealistic insistence on legality in a fundamentally lawless city. The discussion about changing the laws to allow bikes on sidewalks or against traffic on one-way streets rings absurd when sidewalks are often used as parking (illegally but with impunity) for huge SUVs.  Hand in hand with suggestions to loosen the laws applying to bikes should be an insistence on the enforcement of laws regarding parking.  Someone pointed out that one proposal for a bike path was rejected because it occupied a divider strip which had become an illegal parking area;  city officials actually argued that the reduction of parking spots, even illegal ones, was unacceptable!

What is amazing is that there is less outrage about this. We’re talking about city officials defending the illegal behavior of people driving lethal vehicles which consume valuable, limited resources, emit toxic substances directly tied to climate change and occupy prime space in an overcrowded city. Alongside the campaign to improve bike paths, provide for bikes on public transit and trains, increase bike racks, and other small but praiseworthy projects, I would expect at least a symbolic (and facetious) proposal to ban advertising–and eventually sale and possession–of automobiles.

As for urban biking, the fact is that it’s increasing and this is the best news.  This Spring 34 architectural design students from Northeastern University in Boston are drafting proposals for (among other mixed-use functions) bike workshops, storage, rental, and meeting space alongside the Tiber bike path at Porta Portese.  The bike sharing plan launched by the city of Rome, even if it doesn’t really work, is a visual sign that bikes have a place even in Rome. When Italian authorities and politicians start riding bikes instead of expensive cars to work, a really message will have been sent.


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