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Struggling Italians go for bikes

2013-05-27 14:19

TWO-WHEEL LOVE: Crisis-hit Italiians would rather buy a bicycle than a car during the tight financial times. Image: AFP

AMELIE HERENSTEIN

MILAN, Italy - Bikes are out-selling cars in cash-strapped Italy but while Milanese cyclists say their city is ready for a two-wheeled lifestyle there are daily nuisances for riders on Rome's clogged streets.

Some cities in Italy have bike-sharing initiatives, bike paths and public awareness schemes, while cyclists are still barely tolerated in others.

REVOLUTION

Giulietta Pagliaccio, head of the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle said: "The economic crisis has had repercussions for everyone, including in transport. There's been a small revolution in terms of lifestyle.

"We have seen a lot of people who have re-discovered this means of transport. Its ease, its simplicity, its speed for short distances..."

2000 more bicycles wee sold than cars in Italy in 2011 - a differential that rose to more than 200 000 in 2012 according to figures from an association of biking businesses and the transport ministry.

The car sector has been hit by what the head of auto giant Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, dubbed "Carmageddon" - with a 20% drop in sales in 2012. Pagliaccio said Rome was a particularly "difficult" city for cyclists and that in general conditions were worse in the southern half of the country, with poorer roads and few bicycle paths.

'URBAN VISION'

She said mentalities were beginning to change - except for a few motor die-hards "who would drive from their bedroom to the kitchen if they could" - but politicians remained "very behind" in terms of bike-friendly policies.

"They are afraid of losing votes. It's terrifying since everything is done in this perspective, without a long-term urban vision," she said.

Piero Nigrelli, head of bicycles at the Ancma association of biking businesses, said it was "breathtaking to what point politicians lack awareness of the bicycle's value". He said Germany had seven-million cycling tourists a year who generated nine billion euros in turnover; "a modest investment in bike paths" would be needed to bring such benefits to Italy.

BIKE MAYHEM

In the Italian capital, Rome, those who use existing cycle routes complain of junk strewn across the paths, periodic flood and in one case a path blocked by a sprawling Roma camp.

Italy, though famous for its annual Giro d'Italia bike race, has yet to embrace bicycles as human transport though a "Bikemi" bike-sharing scheme in Milan has been enthusiastically received by locals and sales in foldable models are rising. Specialist shops in the economic capital have begun stocking bikes designed for urban life, among them the British Brompton which folds neatly and has a handle so it can be pulled along like a suitcase.

The world's claimed oldest bicycle company, Bianchi, has branched out into electric bicycles to meet a growing demand from Italians keen to swop four wheels for two. Bob Ippolito, head of Bianchi, told AFP: "Customers are asking now for high-range commuter models, they are looking for a long-term investment that supports the idea that they are turning away from the car."

BEST OF BOTH

Commuter bikes are now the company's fastest selling models - up 35% in 2012 - which is partly because some customers "instead of having two cars, now prefer to have a car and a bicycle", he said.

Ancma's Nigrelli insists Italy must play to its strengths as "a kingdom of taste, design and fashion, and make the (bicycle) trend a cool and innovative thing".

But in Rome at least, it will take more than a fleeting fad to get citizens to swap their comfortable gas-guzzlers for a sweaty peddle through the streets.

A bike-sharing scheme launched in Rome in 2008 with 450 bikes at stations near monuments such as the Colosseum failed miserably and had to be scrapped.

Milan's mayor Gianni Alemanno, who is accused by critics of wasting 1.8 million euros on the scheme said: "We tried, but the bikes kept getting stolen."
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