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More on Biking in Rome

June 3, 2009

Last week hundreds of practical-minded and environmentally-motivated urban cyclists took to the streets and highways in Rome for the “Intergalactic Critical Mass”.  For a few hours at the end of the day we swarmed through city streets from the Pyramid to the Colosseum, out the the Pignetto neighborhood and back to the Circus Maximus (where I had to veer off and head home).  It was an uplifting and eye-opening experience.  Expecting hostility from the “inscattolati” (or “canned” the delightful term CM-folk use for car-drivers), I was pleasantly surprised to hear voices of amusement and approval.  Rome is a city used to demonstrations, strikes and motorcades, as well as infrequent road repair work, so it confronts such inconveniences with amazing patience.  The cyclists followed the universal CM policy of appeasement merely reassuring drivers that they would soon be able to pass.  I was able to suppress my own instinct to launch into diatribes about who the planet would be inconvenienced for centuries by their thoughtless petroleum consumption and toxic emissions.

The real compelling moment came after cycling out the Via Prenestina past public housing projects and under the elevated tangenziale roadway, when the swarm inverted its path and ascended the highway, effectively blocking all traffic on what is normally a bumper-to-bumper elevated nightmare. As we reached the peak, banging out music on the guardrails, residents of the apartments just meters from the road began to open windows and step out onto terraces that must normally remain sealed against the noise and fumes.  The fresh air and human sounds seemed to bring joy to these people as well as to the bikers. My thoughts went to the project I designed for my thesis at Harvard which proposed housing alongside an under-utilized ring road in Sicily but also to the recently opened HighLine project in New York where a section of elevated railway has been transformed into an urban park.

Later that same week I found myself ironically on the other side of the fence, trying to get across Rome to an appointment and obstructed by the Giro d’Italia bicycle race which ended in Rome.  Barriers had been set up and I was on the wrong side.  I took it in stride, of course, and stopped to watch the victors race to the finish line, each one proceeded by a car with video equipment.  Too bad, I thought, that cycling continues to be seen more as a sport than as a clean, efficient form of transportation.


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