Feature: When in Rome, bike-share as Romans do

by Eric J. Lyman

ROME, Nov. 9 (Xinhua) — Big cities across Europe are resorting to bike sharing initiatives as a way to cut air pollution from emissions, reduce traffic congestion, and help people to be physically active. Rome is not yet among them, for the moment.

But the city’s top mobility official has reassured that the stint of Rome being the only major European capital without an active bike-sharing program will be a brief one.

Last month, oBike, a two-year-old bike sharing company based in Singapore, announced it was pulling out of several major cities — including Rome — as a result of financial difficulties. Some of oBike’s bicycles remain in operation around the city, but once they are gone it will leave Rome with no other bike-sharing option.

Gobee, another bike-sharing company, withdrew from the city in February partly due to vandalism problems.

However, Enrico Stefano, president of Rome’s Capitoline Mobility Commission, told Xinhua that he expects one or more bike sharing programs to start fresh in the city “within a few weeks”.

Stefano said companies looking to provide bike-sharing services in the city are not required to pay a license fee, though they must follow specific guidelines on the type of bike and some logistical issues. Some companies are already studying the market.

“In the end, it will be a tender process, just as it was with car sharing,” Stefano said. Rome now has three private car-sharing options, plus one operated by the city.

Environmentalists have for years pushed for increased bike use in Rome and other cities. According to Andrea Boraschi, head of the transport campaign for Greenpeace Italy, Rome has a more acute need for clean transport options than most cities.

“Exhaust from vehicles is a problem both in terms of air quality and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in many parts of the world,” Boraschi said in an interview. “Air quality in Rome is among the worst in cities in Italy even though it has no heavy industry, and that’s due to traffic. Rome should be looking for ways to phase out traditional cars and promoting bike use is a key part of that kind of strategy.”

Boraschi noted that only around 1 percent of Roman residents use bicycles to move around the city, while nearly two-thirds reply on private forms of transport. Both figures are among the lowest in Europe.

But Gianluca Santilli, an attorney and national manager of the amateur branch of Federciclismo, an organization for cycling enthusiasts, said Rome will have to make some changes if it wants the next crop of bike sharing companies to stick around longer than oBike and Gobee.

“Rome is not a bike-friendly city,” Santilli told Xinhua. “Very few roads have bike lanes and on the few that do have, they are usually blocked by parked cars. Aggressive drivers are common. The city’s cobblestones can be tough on bikes, and parts of the city are very hilly and would be best served by bikes with electric motors.”

Some Italian media speculate that new companies might charge higher prices for bike use as a way to increase revenue. OBike, for example, charged only 0.30 euros (34 U.S. cents) for 30 minutes of use, but couldn’t turn a profit. Santilli said those concerns are overblown.

“The companies make most of their money by getting companies to sponsor the bikes, turning them into moving advertisements,” he said, adding “Building a database of bike users is also very useful. In New York, for example, bike sharing is free for the first 30 minutes.”

In his view, bike-share business can be profitable, but it’s more than just putting bikes out in the city. “The right conditions have to exist and that isn’t the case for Rome right now.”

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