Cycling in Rome – a physical manifestation of Dante’s Inferno?

For a capital that is home to some incredible sights and is brimming with tourists year-round, it is hard to believe that Rome is so walking and cycling unfriendly. It may be the worst city I have ever visited with my “places are for people” glasses on.  I spent a week there, marveling at the city’s loveliness on the one hand, and despairing at the city’s ugliness on the other. The architecture, art and history of the place are spellbinding, but all of the high points are mired by the atrocious traffic and air quality.

Rome looks picturesque but don't be fooled by its beauty...

Rome looks picturesque but don’t be fooled by its beauty… It’s a monster for walking and cycling.

I’d need to drink several G&Ts to take the edge off before attempting to write about my walking experience, so rather than get drunk I’m going to write about my stresses of getting around Rome by bike instead.

Traumatised but defiant after a day cycling in Roma.

Traumatised but defiant after a day cycling in Roma.

Weathering the traffic storm

With a week spent mostly on foot, I was able to see the city in all its car-strangled glory. Only one day did I hazard exploration on a bicycle, and I am convinced the only way I lived to tell the tale is because I was too scared to cycle on any proper trafficked routes.

As a barometer on cycling awfulness, my refusal to cycle in Italian traffic points the needle to “hurricane force shitness”. As a seasoned utility cyclist in Edinburgh, I’m battle-hardened to riding through my home’s busiest and most congested streets without so much as a shrug. Occasionally, *whispers* I even enjoy it.

Rome was another kettle of fish. If you think driving in Scotland is bad, Roman driving has its rightful place in the seventh circle of hell. Italians’ love of their cars has completely smothered this beautiful city – its arteries are black from tarmac and traffic flow.

These cars are parked. In the middle of the road. Parking fuckwittery in this town is grade 1.

These cars are parked. In the middle of the road. FFFfffffffffffuck’s sake.

The sickness of Rome’s car obsession

The weird thing about this city of 3 million people is that it is much denser than London’s 9 million or so inhabitants and so cycling seems an obvious way to get about. The topography of the city would lend itself to cycling (the seven hills aren’t that bad and would easily be tamed by ebikes). The main roads are obscenely wide and the congestion of the place is so utterly pronounced I am flabbergasted that cycling provision has been given even less than lip service.

What's that? Oh yeah, just a five lane motorway in the middle of an ancient city.

What’s that? Oh yeah, just one of about a million five lane motorways in the middle of an ancient city.

Dad and daughter cycling. What's wrong with this picture? No traffic.

Dad and daughter cycling. But no space for cycling infrastructure, apparently.

In an attempt to combat the endless hours that Romans must spend stuck in traffic, the population has really gone above and beyond. Instead of investing in better forms of transport, they have just shrunk their cars… I can sort of see the logic in this madness – with roads the size of motorways wrapped around anything and everything, you can imagine why people might think smaller cars might get you places quicker. Except they OBVIOUSLY don’t.  Way to not solve the problem, guys.

Rome’s answer to traffic congestion – that tiny car from Muppets Most Wanted

Roaming Rome by bike

There is almost entirely no useful cycling infrastructure in Rome. What does exist is beyond terrible for getting from A to B. This is reflected in the woeful bicycle modal share of 1%. An incredible 54% of Romans use their cars to get around (London sits at 34%) – no wonder the city is gridlocked. Rome is car sick.

On my second day in the city, I was excited to discover a Bici Roma stall at the Piazza del Popolo and immediately spent 5 euro on their cycling map. Expecting to see an network of cycling routes around the city on a map of Spokes’ quality, upon unfolding it I discovered I had bought the world’s worst bike map because there is basically nowhere to cycle in Rome.

Over the course of my week in the city, I spotted a few shocking attempts at cycling infra, including one protected cycleway that spat you out into a gigantic junction of misery, some cursory cycles painted on the footway and what appeared to be its flagship route – the river Tiber.

I spent half a day enjoying the cycle path next to the Tiber river, but getting on and off in the city centre was deeply unpleasant. The infra was quite narrow, had cratered surfaces but was well used by folk on foot and bike. Whether it’s useful for utility trips will largely depend on whether you’re happy hefting a bike up and down 200 steps.

Oooh this is quite nice. Cycle path along the Tiber.

Oooh, this is nice. Cycle path along the Tiber.

Knew it was too good to be true.

No, wait. Knew it was too good to be true. The state of this.

I did manage to find one place in the entire city where cycling was the de-facto way to get about. Rome’s main park, the Villa Borghese, only has two massively stupid roads that slice it up, and cycle hire is available for exploring the islands of greenspace that float amidst the particulate matter.

It was a delight to see the park by cycle, although I did have a mid-level meltdown when attempting to park outside the world-fucking-famous Villa Borghese museum, only to discover that not a single scrap of bike parking existed. In a park full of bikes.

Cycling in the Villa Borghese

A snapshot of what cycling in Rome could be like. Except it isn’t.

I didn’t see any bike parking in Rome. I did mistake two guardrails for bike parking on my last day, and even took a photo of them as evidence to contradict my verdict of how shite Rome is for cycling. Except Rome is definitely shite for cycling, because they are bloody guardrails and not bike parking.

There is light at the end of the garbage-fire infested tunnel

In good news, I was pleased to see those who did cycle do so with typical Italian flair and style. Everyone looked fabulous. So it goes to show that even in a traffic cesspit, high-viz and victim-blaming safety gear haven’t crept into Italian mindsets quite yet.

While I feel your pain at trying to get anywhere, you do look lovely while doing it.

While I feel Roman cyclists’ pain at trying to get anywhere, they do look lovely while doing it.

Cycle chic in Roma.

My Roman experience has done a good job of putting things into perspective when it comes to cycling in Edinburgh. Although far from perfect, I am glad that the hill we have to climb in my fair city isn’t as tough as the Italian capital’s.

There must surely be a cycle campaign in Rome, but without a grasp of Italian I haven’t been able to find any meaningful information on any that might exist. I am sure campaigners do a beyond incredible job in a difficult situation, and my piecemeal cycling experience perhaps doesn’t reflect the reality of utility cycling. But for me, cycling in Rome was grim. I can only hope that my day in the saddle isn’t representative – except I have a sneaking feeling that it probably is.

My woeful George Street Design consultation experience

For those not in the know, George Street has been under an experimental road traffic order for the past year. As part of the experiment, the 30 metre-wide road has given over some space to cyclists. Which is nice.

What’s not so nice is its poor design. I’ve been using it for the last year as part of my daily commute, and although I absolutely embrace the council’s decision to offer some proper space for cycling, in practice the experience is flawed for all users of the street. There are plenty other online discussions that are much clearer than I could ever be when it comes to George Street’s ETRO, so I won’t go into detail here.

I did, however, attempt to go into some detail at an open consultation event yesterday. I am not a very vocal cycle campaigner, as this blog confirms. Nor am I a transport planner. I only have my opinions from first-hand experience of riding a bike and reading a lot of cycling literature. I also walk, use public transport and occasionally drive. I feel frustrated and isolated whenever I attempt to “discuss” cycling issues with people that don’t ride a bike for transport, but I felt it important to attend the event and weigh in with my two pennies.

When it comes to cycle campaigning, my usual tact is to write to MSPs and the like as I feel I can be much more considered and back up my observations with links to relevant studies and evidence. Of course, in conversation that’s not so easy to do and I can get frustrated and emotional and can’t articulate myself.

My George Street design experience was almost a carbon copy of that template situation. I was dismayed to hear a range of bizarre and sometimes frightening responses from some of the consultants hired to undertake the consultation, as well as attendees. I couldn’t fight the good fight because I was too busy disliking conflict with strangers.

Some choice exchanges and overheard conversation included snobby opinions on how all the traffic should be moved onto Princes Street because the shops there are very tatty (!). Another grim comment went along the lines of how George Street needs loadsa parking, as posh people will only shop in posh shops if they can have their cars parked outside.

I had a classic conversation when I asked the consultants whether they thought people on bikes were shortchanged in Edinburgh due to the lack of space for them. Pedestrians get footways, traffic gets roads, bikes get a useless hybrid that encourages conflict. They disagreed.

I also had a cracking comment from a consultant who stated that cycling was embedded in Dutch culture, so they are not very relevant as a comparison to the UK. I was too flummoxed to mention that the Dutch only have a cycling culture because investment was made in infrastructure 40 years ago and it has grown from nothing to amazing.

Another choice snippet came from a fellow consultation participant, who stated that the cycling lobby in Edinburgh was getting too strong. As if fighting for cycling as a legit transport mode is the enemy. Because bikes are such a bad idea by easing congestion, being environmentally friendly, keeping people fit, encouraging more robust and connected communities etc etc.

Of course, I also got the standard red light jumping, cyclists on pavements crap and that “You don’t do yourself any favours”… Because if one cyclist red light jumps then we all do it, OBVIOUSLY.

I appreciate that the point of consultation is to gather feedback from lots of different people. I totally get it. And I also understand that some people don’t think bikes are brilliant. What I don’t get is the thinly veiled vitriol and meanness directed towards people riding bikes and the willful ignorance of the problems that too many cars create.

So it’s back to the old considered email, I think. I’m a bit fed up feeling belittled because I choose to cycle in my city.

*** Update 01/09/2015 – I have since been contacted by the council re the above blog post and experience, feel free to read about it.

The 2015 Edinburgh bike experiment – January edition

I am a self-confessed data geek. With this mild obsession in mind, I decided to embark on a wee 2015 project. I want to record my bike movements so I can see how much physical activity I do, how many miles I cover and the spondoolacks I have potentially saved in comparison to running a car or using public transport full time.

Maybe this little project will encourage more people to cycle. It could help to show the bike as a perfectly viable alternative to cars for getting around Edinburgh for folk with similar lifestyles to me. Hopefully it will be interesting. Who knows?

I am sure plenty of people have done things like this, but they are not me 😉 I am an adequately fit, young-ish woman (but by no means above average fitness-wise), with a very Edinburgh-centric lifestyle. I work, go to lots of places and do lots of things in the city. My average cycle speed is about 10-12 mph. It’s all very relaxed and accessible. So let’s see how we get on!

How it’s going to work

The cycling bit

Recording my activity on the bike is straightforward. I use Strava. You can follow me on it if you like. It is a geolocation service that tracks my miles, elevation, estimated calories and various other bits and pieces. Every time I use the bike, I just turn Strava on and it does all the work for me.

Comparing and contrasting for public transport

Because I record all my cycling activity, I can easily tell by the route if I would have used the bus instead. At the end of the month I tot up how many cycle journeys substituted a bus fare. Easy. If this is higher than the cost of a Lothian Buses Ridacard, I will substitute the Ridacard costs instead of individual fares.

  • A four-weekly Ridacard costs £51. It’s how I used to buy my Ridacard, rather than DD or annual pass. So that’s what I’ll be comparing.

Comparing and contrasting for the car

This is a wee bit more tricky. I’ve averaged out the cost of running a small car for VED, MOT and insurance. I’ve gone for a 2008 1.2l Ford Fiesta – it’s the kind of car I’d have if I decided to buy one. I’ve then used a petrol price checking website to figure out an estimation of the petrol I would have used instead of the cycling miles.

Broom broom, I'm in my imaginary car

Broom broom, I’m in my imaginary car

With my imaginary 2008 Ford Fiesta 1.25 Zetec Blue 3d car, I’ve come up with this monthly breakdown:

  • MOT – £4.58, based on an annual cost of £55
  • VED – £12.08, based on an annual cost of £145
  • Insurance – £22.50 based on an annual cost of £270

That’s a monthly running cost of of £39.16. Petrol goes on top.

For the sake of simplicity, my car will run perfectly for the entire year.

I’ve not factored in the initial £5,000 cost of the car – let’s just say I’ve owned my imaginary motor for a while. As I’ve paid off my £350 bike I will give the car and the bike an even playing field. Just for info, if I was paying the car off with a loan over three years it would be an additional £150 a month. My mind boggles when I think that I’d be paying £189.19 per month before starting the ignition.

All that fitness stuff

I use the bike to keep fit. Sans cycling, I’d have a monthly gym membership at Edinburgh Leisure. So let’s factor that cost into the equation also. A monthly card for classes only comes in at £30.50.

What about expenditure?

I will record any outgoing costs over the month that relate to the bike and any other public transport journeys if cycling is not an option (usually due to extreme weather).

Holes in the argument

I appreciate that this is not scientific. It’s more just for my own curiosity. Some of this will be estimation, but it should give a flavour of what happens when you ride a bike as transport for an entire year. I’m excited! So, let’s get the ball rolling for January…

The January Numbers

I would like to point out that January 2015 has had some really crappy weather. I still did 204 miles on the bike and burnt an estimated 7,300 kcal, the equivalent of 3 1/2 days’ eating or 5 MacSween haggis’ (haggi?).

I cycled away five of these bad boys this month. Via Zoonabar.

I cycled away five of these bad boys this month. Via Zoonabar.

Here is the month’s numbers crunched and presented:

Bike expenditure 

  • £6 – Brake pads
  • £15.50 – Bus fares, due to horrific weather affecting my commute
  • Total = £21.50

Public transport equivalent

  • Bus journeys substituted – 42 (this is the equivalent ticket cost of £63, so the Ridacard is more economical)
  • Ridacard cost = £51

Car equivalent

  • Monthly car running cost – £39.16
  • Petrol cost for 204 miles – £18.20. Now, the journeys I’ve been doing are in the city, so I’m going to round it up to £20 to account for congestion.
  • Total running cost = £59.16

Gym equivalent

  • Total cost – £30.50

Grand totals!

  • Public transport (£51) + gym (£30.50) – expenditure (£21.50) = £60 savings
  • Car (£59.16) + gym (£30.50) – expenditure (£21.50) = £68.16 savings

So January, the crappest month of the year has come out with a £60 margin. That’s better than a slap in the face.

Oh, there is one other thing…

I just bought a road bike. That cost doesn’t factor into this project. I didn’t need to buy it. It was an extravagance. I am only looking at the like for like expenditure of my trusty hybrid, which is the bike I do all my Edinburgh utility and commute riding on 🙂

Stay tuned for February

In which I promise the post will be a much shorter (and hopefully clearer) now that the ground rules have been laid!

If you spot any inconsistencies or I’ve missed anything out, forgotten or otherwise ballsed anything up, PLEASE let me know in the comments.