Whether you are visiting or living in Rome, you will most likely explore various modes of transportation. After trying them all, I still prefer to get around on my hot pink Shimano Jumpertrek bicycle. It is also the least expensive option since I have no need for gas or metro tickets. The best thing about it is that it keeps me in shape and saves me from ruining my heels in the cobblestones. Yes, that is correct I ride my bike in heels. Here is what I think about all of your transportation options in Rome. Read and decide for yourself.
Whenever I tell Italians that I am from New York City, their first response is ‘bello’ but their second is ‘ma caotico, vero?’. Although I consider my city to be more interesting than beautiful, I also consider Rome to be more chaotic than New York. New York City is more like a roller-coaster ride that once you board you fall in line with the others.
New Yorkers must have a microchip or special DNA that keeps the choreography going. People rarely bump into me on the street or at least apologize if they do. Although cars seem to be racing for the gold, they not only stop at the light but also pause for that final group of people who dash across the street at the very last moment.
I can see how many Romans descend from Gladiators, especially when they ram into you as you walk. No apologies are ever uttered. I suppose men are only gentleman when they want to get a little love, but when they want to get somewhere else, it is best to get out of their way.
In New York City we have rules that everyone innately follows: ladies first, age before beauty and when in doubt both turn out of the way. It is what keeps the dance moving smoothly. In Rome, however, I have found myself beginning to walk like a defensive linebacker, ready to ram the next person who attempts to push past me. I must admit, this is not sexy nor chic. I have fallen into an ugly trap. Somewhere along the way Romans got tired of being pushed around and so they started doing the pushing. It is a cycle that continues and either you learn to deal with it or you find another option.
While in most cities of the world, driving has become increasingly more dangerous, it is the opposite in Rome. If you have ever been to Rome you might find this incredible. More cars usually equal more danger but the added element of increased law enforcement in Italy has made things safer; but only safer than its older version and perhaps Bombay. There are traffic cams at many crossroads. Not all of them are in effect but their mere existence make them work.
Driving around Rome may be safer than it ever was in the past, but for those of us who come from rule-abiding countries, it is still a bit frightening. Scooters seem to fall for random reasons such as a humid cobblestone or a sneeze. It is a common belief that anyone who drives a scooter knows that they will have at least one accident in their lifetime. It is not based on any particular statistic but everyone knows someone who has been badly injured in a scooter incident.
Italians must be 18 years old to get a driver’s licence but only 14 to drive a scooter or mini-car, which is quite similar to an electric golf cart. I saw one of these mini-cars get into a small fender bender and the minicars’ exterior was left completely totaled, while the other vehicle did not even dent. The young teen emerged without a scratch so I suppose it is safer than a scooter. In Rome, it is mostly the children of wealthy families who can afford these mini-cars. A month later, I saw the same minicars’ exterior held together by electric tape; not very chic either.
I found peace when I first bought my bicycle. I was free of the cramped and smelly public transportation. No more sudden sidewalk tackles. I was in control and traffic had no effect on me. The weather, however, plays a hand. Luckily, bad weather is rare in Rome. However, I do equip myself with waterproof attire for the rainy season, which is mainly October – December.
It was my first year in Rome when I first spotted signs announcing a Critical Mass. It was to begin at the Coliseum on a Spring Saturday morning. I had borrowed my landlord’s bicycle and rode over, excited to meet other cyclists in Rome.
Although we were a group of about 2,000 cyclists, I was disappointed to find that most were the same Greenpeace-volunteer-type of people. I have nothing against vegetarians or eco-friendly people. I had only hoped to find a variety of personalities and not multiple copies in matching tie-dyed outfits. Where were all the professional cyclists, regular commuters, families, teens, elderly and expats? I expected to see the entire population represented and not just Rome’s neighborhood of San Lorenzo.
I joined in and followed the mass of cyclists all through Rome and made friends at every pit stop. We had just passed Termini when it began to get dark. The mass continued to ride further and further away from the Coliseum. “Excuse me, when do we return to the Colosseum?”, I asked. “We don’t. This ends at a party in a Centro Sociale in Prenestina.” I had known Prenestina to be a dangerous neighborhood where you would not want to be, especially at night. We were just about to enter the area and not only was it dark but I had no idea how to get home.
Luckily, the friends I had made along the way were very helpful. “Why don’t you join us at the party and go home afterwards?”, they asked. “I’m sorry, but I’m going dancing with my friends at La Maison!” They gave me excellent directions home. I showered, put on my dancing shoes and my friends swept me away to one of Rome’s chicest clubs.
Get a bike, now!
- Buying a new or used bicycle:
- I got a €300 bicycle and paid only €70 because it was used. I highly suggest going to Porta Portese anytime of the day except Sunday. There are numerous bike shops and they offer the best prices in Rome for new or used bicycles. I got mine at Simone Cicli Gallant and they continue to keep it in great condition.
- Bike Sharing:
- Smart Card: You can get a smart-card for €10 which includes €5 of bicycle use. The smart-card can be purchased at the A.T.A.C. ticket booths at Termini, Lepanto and Piazza di Spagna.
- Drop-off & Pick-up Stations: Piazza del Popolo / Piazza Venezia / Parlamento / Piazza Colonna / Piazza di Spagna / Largo Argentina / Piazza Navona / Pantheon / Campo dei Fiori / Piazza di San Silvestro / Sforza Cesarini / Via del Tritone / S. Andrea della Vale / Via della Scrofa / Via Arenula / Oratorio / Fontana di Trevi / Pontefici Piazza Dell’oro
- Rates: 1€ from 31 to 60 minutes (First 30 minutes are complimentary after signing up) 2€ from 61 to 90 minutes. 4€ for every 30 minutes after 91 minutes of use time
I cycle all over the eternal city and am faster than buses, trams and cars. Scooters pass me but if traffic is intense, I win. I calculate my travel time by using Google Maps to get ‘walking’ directions. It takes me 1/3 of the estimated walking time, which is usually less than it takes in a car during traffic peak times. If you are considering cycling around Rome as an option, please follow these suggestions:
- Get a helmet: If you get it you will probably never need it, but if you skip it, you may not live to regret it.
- Reflectors: Dusk is perhaps the most dangerous time to ride a bike. While cars have their lights on at night and will eventually see you. At dusk, everything is grey and lights do not make things clearer. They just seem to make everything a little bit more grey. Reflectors, however, are visible during this time and can help you to be visible.
- Reflector Vest: I am so chic and fashionable in this vest! OK, not really, but I prefer to be safe. This helps. It costs little and increases your visibility in a city where no one seems to realize you exist. It’s lightweight and fits anywhere.
- Lights: If you are riding at night, you should have front and rear lights. The rear light is important for cars behind you and the front light is needed for people who may open their car doors.
- Lock: I have not found it necessary to have a super heavy-duty lock. Common sense is more important. Lock your bicycle in well-lit areas where people tend to walk by. A bus stop, in front of a police station or a department store are good ideas. Stay away from where people loiter as they will be too busy staring into space to notice if someone is stealing your bike. Neighborhoods vary, so find a safe place to park your bike at night. Public areas on condominium grounds are legal parking spots for bikes, as long as you do not block paths.
- Sound: A bike horn is best, since it will be heard over traffic but pedestrians rarely recognize it in the city centre. A bell is usually inaudible in traffic, but pedestrians recognize it and move out of the way. If all else fails, yell, scream or do what NYC bike messengers do to get people to move, bark like a dog.
- Stylish Options: Bicycle safety does not always have to be ugly. There are many fun ways to dress up your look while beefing up your safety.
Rules of the Road
The beauty of cycling is that you can go anywhere. Any pedestrian walking area in the city centre is also open to bicycles. Legally, you should not ride on the sidewalks, but when necessary, I do. Legally, you should follow all traffic signals, but for my own safety, I choose when to do so. I ride with my own set of rules, which I have found to keep me as safe as possible.
- Stop at any cross walk where someone is crossing and be very aware of senior citizens. They scare easily, so leave them plenty of room, usually over a metre/yard of distance. If you scare someone and cause an accident, you may not be legally responsible but it will remain on your conscience.
- Italians walk in the middle of all streets, usually leaving the sidewalks completely free. Perhaps, because the sidewalks are covered in dog poop. Regardless, honk or wave them out of the way. Most never look before crossing, so honk when you see anyone in the street as they will most likely run in front of you at any moment. Italian pedestrians are the biggest hazard I find. Tourists, on the other hand, are too scared of the Italians driving around and so they tend to remain glued to the sidewalks.
- Look in every direction before crossing with a red light. Scooters might be doing it as well. I find that crossing on red keeps most of the cars behind me and makes me more visible than crossing with them on green. However, keep in mind that you may not be the only one doing so. Make sure no one else is running the light before you attempt to abruptly change course. If you would not make it across on foot, do not attempt it on your bike.
- Falling: It might happen and your chances of falling are highest when you stop. If you know that you are about to fall, jump off the bike. Let it fall. I have always managed to land on my feet. This only works when you are losing your balance or have lost control of your bike. Each time I have risked falling has been due to clueless pedestrians walking towards me in the middle of the street who downright refused to move. Collisions, however, are mostly averted through caution, protection, observation and a bit of luck.
- Bike Lanes: Bicycle lanes are rare and when they exist, pedestrians are all over them or cars and scooters are parked on them. You have to always be careful. Some are completely free, but in desolate areas and therefore not so safe either. The bike lane situation in Rome is really a disgrace. They rarely ever lead you anywhere as most run in a circle around a couple of blocks. I have almost gotten run over twice by mothers picking up their children at a highly exclusive Parioli private school. They speed out of the hidden driveway which opens directly onto a bike lane only metres away from the Villa Ada park entrance.
- Tram tracks and reserved bus lanes: These are reserved for taxis, buses and trams. Stay on the foot of space between the track and the divider in order to allow cars to pass you. This is ideal because you have no cars turning, pulling out of parking spots or stopping in front of you. Pedestrians are also more cautious here. Trams are faster but they stop at every traffic light and tram stop. Test your speed on the street before attempting the tram tracks. I usually pass at least two trams and catch up to a third. Remember to get out of the way of emergency vehicles.
- Major crossways: Be very careful at major intersections. I sometimes walk my bike across with the pedestrians. Cars at these points are eager to get across and may not notice you. A little patience at these times will keep you safe.
- Blocked Traffic: If someone can go on foot, so can you. Most political demonstrations in Italy happen in Rome. They will block all traffic and nothing but people on foot and you on your bike will manage to get through. Walk your bike across if necessary.
- Hills: There are seven famous hills in Rome, which is why Rome has never been a mecca for cyclists. It is much easier to ride a bike in Florence or Milan. The steepest hills I have encountered were on and around Via Medaglie D’Oro in the Balduina/Monte Mario area. The other is Gianicolense and Gianicolo in Monte Verde. The only ones I avoid are those near Monte Mario. I always manage with the rest but I do break a sweat each time.
I have now pointed out all the dangers that I know of and in doing so I may have frightened you out of cycling. Regardless, I think it is better to be aware of what you will encounter as you ride through the city. However, the freedom of going wherever you wish is wonderful: I stay in shape, I do my shopping, I go out to meet friends, I am free of bus tickets, gas prices, parking tickets, traffic and sidewalk gladiators.
Taking your bike on the train:
- All Public Transportation: Legally, one bicycle is permitted on all public transportation at any time of day. However, you will practically fight to the death with the bus driver or metro conductor to allow you entry. Knowing that this is the law may help you but be prepared to be denied. However, multiple bicycles are allowed during limited times.
- Trams: No, but I do when I get stuck in the rain. Tram #8 from Largo Argentina has no steps, so it’s easy to roll in your bike. I have taken it even when it is full. No one has ever denied me entry. However, trams with steps such as the #19 are too narrow to take when they are full. If you have a ticket, the worst that can happen is that they ask you to get off. If you do not have a ticket, tell them to call the embassy and bluff your way out of the fine. If you are not an Italian national, they cannot do anything other than try to scare you into paying them on the spot. A.T.A.C. personnel have no legal authority whatsoever. They can only make you descend. Do not fall for their intimidating tales of embassies and police.
- Metro and Ostia Lido Line: Yes, with limited times. Monday through Friday – after 9pm only. Weekends: Yes. First car only.
- Trenitalia Trains: Yes! These trains are convenient as they go all around Rome as well as all over Italy. Board on the first car and stay with your bike by the door. These trains stop at several popular destinations: Trastevere, Piramide, San Pietro, Aurelia, Nomentana/Somalia, Tiburtina, Parco Leonardo Mall and Fiumicino. You can also take it into the Roman countryside and visit Lake Bracciano, Viterbo and all the little towns in between.
- Tickets: Please inform yourself on any additional tickets that you may need to purchase in order to carry your bike aboard. Otherwise you may need to bluff your way out of a fine. Remember, if you are not an Italian national, it is best not to pay the fine up front as they will not be able to send you the fine to your country of residence.
The Bicycle Doctors of Rome
Bike help is everywhere, but well hidden. Always keep an eye out for places in your area, so you know where to go when in need. Here are the ones I have used or noticed in the past.
- Simone Cicli Gallant Porta Portese – Stand 88 06/5816877
- This is my Top Pick! They are open till 7pm Mon-Sat non-stop. They have the best prices for everything. I bought my bike there and they keep it in great shape for a very low price. There are two guys that work there. One is always smiling and very friendly, but always quotes a slightly higher price. The other guy is usually serious and appears to be in a bad mood, but he’s very sweet and seems to really care. He always quotes a very low price. They even give me a substitute bike to use when the work needed is time-consuming. There are other bicycle shops on this back road. Choose whoever inspires you most.
- Piazza Fiume, next to Mondadori
- This one is trés chic and has prices to match, but they are very courteous and the only one I know of in that area. I got a flat once and they fixed it for €8. Make sure that there are no sharp pieces stuck in your tire or it will go flat again. They close at 1pm and re-open at 4pm until 6 or 7.
- Gianicolense – in front of Pizza San Giovanni di Dio
- I’ve never used them, since this area is close enough to Porta Portese, but if it is near you and you wish to look no further, they seem to be well-equipped.
- Campo dei Fiori – Via del Pellegrino
- If you walk from Campo dei Fiori, it’ll be on your left. This one is pricier but the only one I know of in this area.
If none of these are near you, you can take your bike on any Trenitalia train on the first car. Take it to Stazione Trastevere and walk to Porta Portese. As I previously mentioned, I also take my bike on the 8 tram, although this is not necessarily allowed, no one has said anything yet.
A note to pedestrians and drivers:
- A cyclist’s greatest risk of falling is when they stop. If you see a cyclist, please allow them to pass. It is safer for everyone.
- A bicycle needs more room than a car or scooter in order to come to a complete stop. If you force a cyclist to stop without enough space, they may stop upon impact. Chances are that the pedestrian will suffer more injuries. Let cyclists pass.
- Think about this: A cyclist going downhill has gravity helping, which makes stopping difficult. A cyclist going uphill is using lots of energy and if you force them to stop, you will kill their momentum. Cyclists going uphill or downhill will not want to stop. Forcing them to do so will put you at risk.
- Bicycles are usually silent so you must use your eyes and actually look before you leap. You should still look both ways even if it is a one-way street.
- Look before opening your car door or backing up into traffic.
- Leave enough space for the bicycle when you pass one on the street.
- Look both ways before you cross the street. (Hmmm, perhaps I should write this in Italian.)
- Walk on the sidewalks, that is the purpose of their existence. (Yes, I should definitely write this in Italian.)
- Cross at the crosswalks and look before you do so. Cyclists are not psychic. If you throw yourself in front of a bicycle on a crosswalk, the cyclist may still be liable but you will be the one to get hurt. Do you prefer to be right and hurt or wait an extra second and be safe?
- If you throw yourself in the middle of the street without looking, you are putting lives at risk, including your own.
- Did I mention, look both ways before you cross the street?
Now that you are aware, keep your eyes open and enjoy the ride. You will discover so many hidden treasures as you roam around new neighborhoods.