Reportage. Italian Parliament has begun to address road safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. But as traffic fatalities have increased, cities have failed to implement actual changes.

Cyclists (and politicians) rally on Rome’s deadly streets

Bicycles flooded Rome’s Imperial Fora as cyclists rallied asking politicians for an “urban revolution.” Six years after the Save the Cyclists demonstration, Rome’s city center — which usually teems with tourists coming from more bike-friendly cities — gave way to a unique demonstration in the afternoon: a cycling rally.

A stairway served as stage, speakers spoke briefly one after the other and radios spread their speeches. Demonstrators observed a minute of silence lying on the ground beside their bikes to remember all the cyclists who have lost their lives. The rally ended with balloons lifting a paper bike in the air. Then, people reached the Sapienza University of Rome, and ate together in the Cacciatorella Park.

It was the people’s party of individualist ­revolutionaries: there weren’t two identical bikes among the thousands at the rally. They were also idealists: for once they decided to get together to fight against “a wrong way” and to propose “a completely different way to live our cities.”

People came from all across the country — the largest groups came from Turin, Milan and Bologna — but it was Paolo Gandolfi who started the “pacific sit-in.” Gandolfi is a former Democratic Party MP who was kicked out by Renzi — the ex-prime minister who cycles only in front of cameras. Gandolfi cycled all the way from Milan: “650 kilometers in a week via Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Florence, Arezzo and Civita Castellana,” he said. He was the first one to step onto the stairway and call for a “revolution.”

“We want to change our cities and our suburbs to make them places where everyone who uses the roads can feel safe,” he said.

Next came Simona Larghetti, who invented Dynamo, the first “bike-station” in Bologna. She told the crowd about the platform: “We want safety for all, beginning with kids and the elderly; love and beauty for the places in which we live; relationships and friendships among people; accessibility, and a chance for everyone to move independently.”

Then came Rome’s famous activist Rotafixa, aka Paolo Bellino, who says: “Enough words now, we want facts.” After him spoke FIAB (Italian Federation Friends of Bicycles) and Greenpeace. There were notable stories from the ground, including one from Naples’ Rione della Sanità and one told by Marco from Milan, who asks people to be self-critical. “Pedestrians see us cyclists exactly the way we see car drivers,” he says. “If we really want to shake up mobility, we need to ally with the weaker: we should be close to pedestrians and wheelchair users.”

Much has changed in the last six years. In December 2017, Parliament approved a law forcing every city council to produce a mobility plan for cycling for their town. There are obvious delays on the project to build 20,000 kilometers of cycle lanes, though in theory there are enough resources to change this. But there has also been a staggering rise in the number of deaths and of road accidents for urban cyclists — a sign that safety got worse. So the cycling rally produced even more demands: more public transport; improved access to bring bike onto public transport (“a contractual duty for Italian railways and council transport companies”); bike managers in every council; more cycling lanes, and safer cycling lanes (“bike buses and pedestrian buses to take kids to school”); disincentives for car drivers, like “reducing parking spaces to reclaim space”; incentives and rewards for those who cycle to work; and more 20 mph areas.

The politicians who face these demands were present on the streets, even though they didn’t do much until today. A blog post by Beppe Grillo confirmed that the 5 Star Movement (M5S) supported the demonstration. M5S city councillor Daniele Frongia attended the demonstration with his son and his bike. There were also M5S Rome Cabinet Member for Transport Linda Meleo and even Rome’s M5S Mayor Virginia Raggi — although she was walking, not cycling.

Rome will soon have “Free Roads,” periods during which many streets will be closed to traffic, but so far the delay in works to build Rome’s GRAB (Great Bicycle Ring Road) and to maintain cycle lanes dominate the scene. So the many Power to the People (Potere al Popolo, PAP) activists stand out even more at the demonstration: they went beyond official support, and pedalled as true cyclists.

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