In the 1948 film “The Bicycle Thief,” the despairing protagonist crosses Rome in a vain search for his stolen bike. Today, Mayor Ignazio Marino is playing a similar role.
While municipal bike sharing has thrived from Paris to Sao Paulo, the Eternal City is proving an exception. The Roma’n’bike program has been hobbled by crooks, legal troubles, political wrangling and geography -- the city sits on its famous seven hills -- combined with residents’ reluctance to abandon their cars and scooters.
“Romans don’t like to show up anywhere sweaty from a bike ride,” said Federico Niglia, a history professor at Luiss University in Rome who owns a bicycle but rarely pedals. “And you have theft, bureaucracy, political wrangling. The same problems that plague the country are dooming bike sharing.”
Roma’n’bike was introduced in 2008 just a year after the successful Velib program in Paris and before those in New York, Milan and London. Yet while the website still offers instructions for signing up, the last update is from July 2010.
“It’s like the Roman Empire: We were first, now we’re behind,” said Eleonora Carletti, 32, who works in a restaurant near Via del Corso, where an abandoned bike rack props up a menu board showing the daily specials. Though she admits to enjoying Barcelona’s program on a recent visit, at home “I never really used the bikes because I have a car.”
Rome’s failure is an embarrassment to Mayor Marino, who cycles to work and was elected promising better mobility and less traffic. Though he was able to close streets near the Roman Forum to cars, Marino has made little headway in the bike-sharing debacle.
A formidable obstacle has been Rome’s love affair with the internal combustion engine. The city has 978 motorized vehicles -- cars, motorcycles, and scooters -- per 1,000 inhabitants, according to municipal data. That compares with 398 vehicles per 1,000 Londoners and 415 per 1,000 in Paris, home to Velib, which has over 20,000 bikes and 1,800 stations.
Spanish outdoor-advertising company Cemusa, which introduced bike sharing to Pamplona, Malaga and San Sebastian, got a contract to build Rome’s program and run it for six months, later extended to a year. Cemusa says it signed up more than 6,000 users for about 200 bikes and 19 stations soon after it started six years ago. It expected the pilot program to provide an advantage once Rome offered a city-wide contract.
When Rome failed to put out the tender amid complaints over the prospect of a foreign company’s involvement, Cemusa demanded more money or the possibility of selling advertising.
“Neither happened and we left,” said Marco Dallamano, Cemusa’s head in Italy.
In early 2009, with Cemusa out of the picture, then-Mayor Gianni Alemanno put the public-transit agency in charge -- and the wheels came off.
“A bus is not a bike,” said Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike, a bike-sharing consulting firm in Washington D.C. that has advised cities including Copenhagen and Arlington, Virginia. “With municipalities, you don’t necessarily have the skill set needed.”
Massimiliano Tonelli, 35, founder of Bikesharing Roma, a blog that has chronicled the program’s woes, says the city made numerous missteps. For instance, it charged users from the start of each ride, instead of giving them the first half-hour free as in most other programs.
Alemanno didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Though a handful of bike stations were added after a new municipal company was created to take over in 2010, cycles disappeared or broke down.
“You didn't need a credit-card to register, they didn’t come around often enough to check bikes and most were stolen,” Tonelli said. “It was a disaster.”
A walk -- or privately rented bike ride -- around Rome’s center reveals rusting racks offering shade to stray cats near the Pantheon, parking for Vespa scooters near the Via del Corso, and a prop for gelato-eating tourists admiring the Spanish Steps.
In 2011, a tender was finally put in place offering ad space in exchange for managing the service. Before bidding began, a local court ordered the contract reissued because it didn’t clearly state what kind of ad spaces were on offer. City hall approved a new process in March, promising 80 new stations and up to 1,000 new bikes. There’s been little visible progress.
“There will be 1,000 new bikes by March 21,” Mayor Marino told TV show Striscia La Notizia in January. With the stands still empty, he may want to take note of the plot of “The Bicycle Thief”: After searching Rome with his young son in tow, the protagonist never gets his bike back -- though everyone else seems to have one.
“That’s how I feel! Everywhere you turn in the world there are bike-sharing programs,” said Carolina De Simone, a student completing her PhD in political science. “Only Rome is left out.”