The chaos, congestion, and cobblestones can make cycling in Italy a nerve-shattering affair.
But crazy drivers, swerving scooters, and gigantic potholes have not stopped a renaissance in cycling, as the economic crisis forces Italians to tighten their belts.
For the first time since the end of World War II, the number of bicycles sold in Italy has overtaken the number of cars, according to new figures from Confindustria, a manufacturers’ association. Italy may be home to legendary brands such as Fiat, Ferrari, and Lamborghini, but 1,750,000 bikes were bought last year, compared to 1,748,000 motor vehicles.
Italy has one of the highest car ownership levels in the world – there are around six cars for every 10 people. Owning a family car became one of the symbols of the country’s post-war industrialization and economic “miracle.”
But the glory days of streaking down the autostrada or rattling down country lanes seem to have hit the skids, with driving now an unaffordable luxury for many. Gas prices recently hit two euros a liter ($9.50 a gallon) – the highest in Europe – and keeping the average car on the road costs around 7,000 euros ($9,000) a year.
Families are ditching their second cars, signing up to car pool schemes, and buying bicycles. Branches of Decathlon, an outdoor pursuits megastore often found on the periphery of big cities, are packed each weekend with people choosing between sturdy mountain bikes, sleek hybrids or, for commuters, collapsible two-wheelers.
Despite the dangers on the road, cycling is cheap and convenient – in central Rome, where I live, a journey of a couple of miles is often quicker by bike than in a taxi or on a scooter.
In addition to new purchases, Italians have also hauled around 200,000 rusty old bikes from their cellars and garages and restored them to roadworthiness.
People have a new-found appreciation of the convenience of bikes and the fact that they are kind to the environment, Antonio Della Venezia, the president of the Italian Federation of Bike Lovers, told La Republica newspaper. “People who have only ever driven cars are changing their thinking. I don’t think Italy will go back to the levels of cars sales that we saw before 2008.”
As bike sales boom, the car industry is going through its worst crisis for decades – in September, sales of new automobiles were down 25 percent compared with the same period in 2011, according to figures for the industry released by Fiat.
Sergio Marchionne, the head of Fiat, said last month that "anyone operating in the automotive sector in Europe today is experiencing varying degrees of unhappiness. The European car market is a disaster."
The company’s most popular model now is the budget-priced Panda, which costs around 10,000 euros (about $13,000). But for families who find even that fairly modest sum too much of a stretch, biking could be the way to go.