A Total Fiasco: Bicycling Infrastructure in Italy

As many travelers past and present have been keen to observe, Italy does many things well- gelato, ravioli, fancy cars and even fancier handbags. Traffic, I must dutifully report, is not part of that impressive repertoire. From the moment one steps off a train platform, whether in Rome, Florence, or (god forbid) into the pungent cauldron of Naples, they have lost their right of way. The culprit may be a Vespa, a delivery truck, or a Ferrari, but you will always remember that virgin, bitter sting of your foot being crushed under a rubber tire going 20 km over the “speed limit.” For as much as I could chuckle to myself about Italy’s traffic chaos, especially after basking in the traffic paradisos of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands- places where pedestrians eerily wait for walk signs in the dead of night- bicycling in fact plays a larger role in Italy’s transportation chaos than one might expect. Of course, when one goes to Italy, one doesn’t go to study bicycling infrastructure, and to be honest, neither was I. Still, I believe that some of the good and bad examples of bicycling infrastructure I came across along my travels are worth sharing with the general public.

Ravenna and Ferrara

(I would have begun in Venice, but riding a bike around Venice is insane.)

The small cities of Ravenna and Ferrara, and to a lesser degree Bologna, in the province of Emilia Romagna (one of Italy’s wealthier, northern provinces), have a surprising amount of bicycling, and a slightly more striking amount of bicycling infrastructure. What is most distinctive about these small cities however, is who is riding these bikes. Unlike Brooklyn or Berlin where bicycling is most visible and fashionable among hip youth and students, in Italy, the most noticeable bicycling population is elderly.

Like some crumbling basilica sinking into the mud, the elderly bicycling populations of Ravenna and Ferrara represent a vestige of time past. They hark back to a time in Italy’s grand history before automobile ownership and vespas, when bicycling was the fastest and most convenient way to get around the small towns and Italian countryside (at least the flatter regions). Though the gates of Ravenna have today flung open to a torrent of traffic, the old ladies headed to the market still take their bikes. (When I say old, I mean really, really old ladies.)

Since I was expecting almost nothing infrastructure-wise in Italy, Ravenna and Ferrara were both enlightening in that each boasted considerable mileage of separated, well signed on street or sidewalk bicycle paths. Moreover, the ways that these paths had been implemented were, especially in the case of Ravenna, somewhat distinctive from other cities and strategies that I had observed thus far.

For a city that was briefly one of the largest of antiquity and the Byzantine Era, Ravenna doesn’t boast the kind of tarnished grandeur that one might expect. Still, though its luster is today primarily restricted to its famous gold church mosaics, the city’s bicycling culture is a marvel in a country ubiquitous with traffic fatalities. Many cobblestone streets in the city’s old center have been repaved in the center to create smoother surfaces for bicyclists. Outside the city walls, meanwhile, a mixture of signage and infrastructure indicate regional destinations. Some head toward the Adriatic, others to nearby towns and villages. At the tourist office, I was even given a bicycling map, albeit one that way only in German. (I suppose Ravenna isn’t exactly on the American grand tour.)

As much as I was impressed by the amount of infrastructure I did see in Ravenna, after a day or two, I began to see how many fissures there really are in the city’s bicycling network. For a relatively small city, there is a lot of traffic. Main streets, like elsewhere in Italy, are difficult to cross, with few timed traffic signals. Actual bicycle paths, meanwhile, when consistent, still zigzag unnecessarily and frequently change from street to sidewalk to street without much warning or logic. Though Ravenna is by no means a perfect system, it has many of the important, less noticeable elements of a good cycling network, such as well thought out parking areas catered to frequent destinations, and for Italy, a fair amount of traffic hierarchy and structure.

From Ravenna, I made my way to the city of Ferrara. A light rain was falling when I arrived and, since I couldn’t find a baggage storage at the train station, I had to haul my thirty pound pack of dirty laundry around with me while taking photographs. As much pain as I felt when I finally took off my pack, the sight of throngs of elderly bicyclists parading through the Renaissance streets of Ferrara is a memory I will cherish forever. Though the city is compact, and has a large student population, bicycling culture here flourishes as if a part of a timeless way of life, and compared with other Italian cities, Ferrara’s street life is largely free from the tyranny of automobile and vespa traffic.

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When I was originally doing research for my fellowship, I remember reading a sentence about bicycling becoming fashionable all across Europe- in cities like Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and yes, Rome. The sentence surprised me too, but I kept it in the back of my mind to look out for a bicycle share station or two on my visit. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly impressed by the results.

First off, Rome’s bicycle sharing system is pathetic. Stations are few and far between, and seem to serve more as a showpiece of the city’s (lackluster) effort to be green than as any tangible solution to their ingrained traffic problems. As a pedestrian, moreover, Rome is a complete nightmare. Forget the warren of medieval streets that shouldn’t but do allow cars and vespas to both park and drive on them, the biggest issue in Rome is that regular streets serve as highways directly where the city’s main attractions meet. What would logically be the city’s modern “forum”- the most central, celebrated axis where it coalesces into something resembling sanity- a series of ineffective crosswalks with no timed traffic signal offer the only  passage across. It’s an outrageous and obvious rent in the fabric of the city. Someone should have thought to fix that problem before investing any time and effort into a purposeless bicycle share system. The ancient center of the city, meanwhile, the actual Roman Forum, is completely fenced off with only a single entrance (at least during low season). It serves as a massive barrier between neighborhoods, and since it lies at the foot of the Campidoglio and the Palatine, can be a thigh-blasting nuisance to circumvent.

As infrastructure goes, Rome made Ravenna look like Amsterdam. Whatever infrastructure I did see, was bad and lasted for hardly two blocks. A beautiful bicycle path does run along the Tiber, but to reach it, one has to find a staircase. In my mind, Rome’s traffic problems stem from a lack of clear hierarchy and categorization, not only for bicycles, but for cars and pedestrians as well. Cars drive down residential streets at the same speed as they drive down regional or distributor roads, and there are few tangible indications, outside of logic and sanity, that they shouldn’t. If Rome’s streets were better defined into a series of 30 km/hr or pedestrian friendly zones with speed bumps and parking bans, then fewer cars would be speeding to take shortcuts to the nearest traffic jam.

Ditto Florence, with more infrastructure, but less character to the chaos.

Final Thoughts

Italy is no place to learn about bicycling infrastructure. Nevertheless, its bare canvas for traffic planning (really more of a Pollak-esque opus), is thought provoking for the logic one can deduce from its palette of missteps and ineptitude. Places like Rome and Florence have a tremendous amount of history, streets congested by tourists, traffic, and street hawkers, but they are places where bicycling has the potential to not only improve traffic, but make the city healthier, safer, more environmentally friendly, and livable. After all, any old, dense city with a concentration of destinations and insufficient public transit, is rife for cycling infrastructure. Instead of focusing on bicycle sharing rather than infrastructure (or in the case of Florence, relieving the city’s infrastructure by moving the David somewhere else–a ridiculous solution if I may say so myself), both cities miss out on the opportunity to rethink the potential of the street as a place for people to meet, interact, eat, and wander, without the fear of being run over, an all too common occurrence in Europe’s richest second world country.

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One Response to A Total Fiasco: Bicycling Infrastructure in Italy

  1. Ed says:

    I am a 69-year-old who enjoys cautious biking here in Portland, Oregon where BikePortland.org published your piece about bicycling in Italy. Bravo! You are a talented and inventive writer. I especially appreciated your description of my age group on bikes as representing “some crumbling basilica sinking into the mud.” It is often exactly how I feel as the younger and more fit practitioners zoom and swoop around and past me. Still, I happily pedal on. It’s good to know I am in such good and tenacious company.

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