Thursday, October 7, 2010

The State of Cycling in Rome

Often, many cyclists yearn for the end of the automobile. A time will come when we will all beat our carbeurators (or fuel injectors or whatever the hell it is that's under the hood and making all of that noise) into chainrings, the lamb will lie down on Broadway and vomit the tiger out of its tank, and we shall fear no more the hazardous hurtling Hummer as we blithely take the lane on our daily travels. The air will smell sweeter, as we all go about our daily lives toting local grown produce and free-range Angus beef in our panniers.

Who needs a helmet when you've got a bald spot?

Of course, the panniers are Canadian and the components on these bicycles are Japanese, but they will be delivered by elf-driven cloud chariots pulled by teams of unicorns.

Until this day comes (Branson Air is working on the cloud chariot thing), I invite all of you to move to Rome. Of course, you'll soon be broke because most of you don't speak Italian and will thus be unable to find jobs, and will quickly fritter away your meager savings on gelato, espresso, and Diet Cokes. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Bianchi with a front fender, chain guard, handlebar bell, and friction generator head lamp

Not that there aren't cars here in Rome. There are plenty of them, along with trucks, buses, and motorscooters. They zip around doing zero to 25 to zero, shimmying through alleys like dogs wiggling out from under a fence, bending the laws of time and space to find parking spaces. Frequently, the cars and motorscooters violate basic laws of physics, with the usual disastrous results. RandoGirl and I are of the opinion that one our of every three sirens we hear in Rome are for kamikaze scooter pilots being carted to the hospital.

Do not overcome the barriers of location (at least, without a permit from a theoretical physicist)

Like most European countries, Italy has made automobiles less appealing by making fuel so damned expensive. Like most old European cities, Rome has gone further by preserving a heritage that is perpetually at odds with motor vehicles. Since the streets are narrow and winding, reversing themselves and ending without so much as a by-your-leave (which, I must admit, I've never gotten myself, even if I have had a number of "on-your-lefts" which felt equally dismissive), driving would be a chore here. For drivers of trucks and taxis it takes an extra level of skill. Those that can't handle it are relegated to less strenuous forms of driving -- like Formula One.

At what point does it cease to be a motorcycle and become a one-seat car?

Since getting about by car is so difficult, Rome has lots of pedestrians, a decent subway system (although no Subways themselves, which has kept RandoGirl and I from eating fresh), and a lot of bicycles.

Everything you need, except a front fender

We also found a bicycle designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leo was fixed before fixed was cool.

Rome apparently has a bike rental program, as many cities have instituted, so you can rent a bicycle in one location, ride to another, and leave the bike there.

Of course, when we checked these bikes out we found that only two of them were in working order. On the other two, one rear tire was flat and the other had been pulled mostly out, probably by someone intending to steal the tube. It is also interesting to note that, directly opposite this rack was an office of the local militia, the caribinieri.

Here's another rack that we found a few blocks away.

And this one, near Piazza Popolo.

It is possible that all of the bikes were in use at this time, and that people  were out enjoying a lovely ride. Of course, we only saw one of the green bikesharing bicycles out while we were walking about. Every one of these bikesharing racks seemed to have instead been misappropriated as parking slots for motorcycles and scooters.

We did see rental bikes in the park, though. Or, at least they were kind of like bikes.

And there was a handcycle at the Handicapped Festival being held at one of the piazzas.

But I don't consider either of these indicators that cycling is more integrated into Roman culture than it is in America. For the handcycling athlete, this bike is like the set of Pings is to the golfer. It gives them pleasure and exercise, but it is not something that is integral to their daily living. The same thing goes for the couple in the bike-car. It is, at best, a diversion.

Contrast it with this guy.

He's just on his way home from work, with something he picked up for his happy bimbo.

RandoGirl and I were very impressed with this fellow, who not only had a cat on a leash, but put the cat on his shoulders to bike home with him. If this ain't love, what is?

Finally, there was this guy on a Bianchi, whose picture I took when he was stopped at a red light near the Coliseum.

Okay, so I stink at taking pictures. Nonetheless, you can tell that this fellow is not just out for a spin. Since it was about 1 pm, I'm pretty sure that he was on his way to or from lunch. He wasn't riding a bike for exercise or in a race or to make any kind of social statement. He was just getting around, working with the pedestrians and cars around him, and living his life. That's what I consider sustainable energy.

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