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updated: 8/10/2013 3:26 PM

Rome scooters a memory as mayor leads bicycle push

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  • A street vendor sells umbrellas Tuesday in Rome. Hot weather this week had temperatures rising up to 104 degrees.

    A street vendor sells umbrellas Tuesday in Rome. Hot weather this week had temperatures rising up to 104 degrees.
    Associated Press

By Tommaso Ebhardt and Chiara Vasarri=

Bloomberg News

ROME -- For decades Italians sped around the Colosseum on their Vespa scooters in much the same fashion as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the movie "Roman Holiday." Then came a new mayor and his plan to make the city greener.

Ignazio Marino, who took over in June and rides his bicycle to meetings instead of using an official car, has permanently closed the area to private traffic in a move to turn the ancient forums into an archaeological park.

"We really have the responsibility to remove cars and buses and traffic and pollution from one of the most famous monuments on the planet," the 58-year-old transplant surgeon said in an interview on Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road made famous in the 1953 classic with Hepburn and Peck.

Marino's push to make Rome's oldest attractions more pedestrian friendly is part of a broader shift taking place in historically car-crazy Italy -- home to supercar makers Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini -- away from vehicle ownership toward pedal power and public transportation. Bicycle sales in 2011 edged past car deliveries for the first time in almost 50 years and in 2012 the gap widened to 200,000.

Driving the tectonic shift is the country's longest economic recession since World War II, which has pushed auto demand to the lowest in more than 30 years. At the same time, Italian government efforts to ease congestion in big cities and along the famed autostradas has made public transport and bikes both faster and cheaper.

"It's not just about the crisis; there is a structural change in the market which has started and no one can stop," said Peter Fuss, a senior advisory partner at Ernst & Young in Eschborn, Germany. "You have both people who can't afford any more to own a car and those, especially young people, who no longer have an interest in owning an auto."

In Milan, drivers must pay a congestion charge of 5 euros ($6.64) to enter the central part of the city. Cyclists buzz around the Gothic cathedral on hundreds of yellow BikeMi two- wheelers rented from a bike-sharing program started in 2008.

Bankers, managers and fashionistas cross through the crowded Montenapoleone fashion district with the bikes, which posted a 32 percent increase in usage last year to 1.43 million rides. Milan plans to add 100 kilometers (62 miles) of bike lanes to reach a network of 240 kilometers in 2015, when the country's financial capital hosts the World's Fair.

Italians bought 1.61 million bikes last year compared to 1.4 million cars. At the same time, the number of cars circulating on Italian roads fell by 35,026 in 2012 and the number of people taking the country's driving exam plunged to the lowest in more than 20 years, according to data from the Anfia auto industry group and the Ministry of Transport.

Italy has been the outlier in the European Union, where bikes have outsold cars since at least 2000. In Germany, the region's biggest market for both bicycles and passenger vehicles, 4.05 million bikes were sold in 2011 compared with 3.17 million autos.

While car deliveries in Europe fell 8 percent to 13.2 million in 2011 from 14.3 million in 2008, bicycle demand was almost unchanged in the period at around 20 million a year, according to data from IHS Automotive and Coliped, the association of European bike parts & accessories suppliers.

With Italy adding more high-speed trains between bigger cities, public transport has for many become the mode of choice. Ridership on the state-owned railway's fast connections increased 6.5 percent last year to 39.8 million passengers. A privately owned high-speed rail operator started up in 2012 to take advantage of the rising demand.

The train trip from Milan to Rome is now less than 3 hours and ticket prices start at around 30 euros. By car, the 580- kilometer ride through the Apennine mountains takes at least 5 hours and costs 38.30 euros for the tolls alone, without factoring in some of the highest fuel charges in Europe. Highway traffic in Italy dropped 7.5 percent in 2012.

"It looks like a structural change of the market" and "for sure the attitude of young people toward cars has changed," Alfredo Altavilla, who runs automaker Fiat's European operations, said last month in Milan. "Our reaction is to concentrate on product lines which get closer to the young generation's interests, such as the 500 sub-brand."

That may not be enough. Italian automakers need to consider widening their range of offerings to include car-sharing and carpooling programs, Fuss said. BMW and Daimler have started car-sharing programs in Germany that allow customers to rent vehicles within cities for short periods of time.

Autos have lost their appeal among young Italians in part because the millennial generation, as in other developed countries such as the United States, is more interested in buying the latest tech devices as status symbols than owning a vehicle.

"If you don't have to do long trips, having a car is totally unnecessary," said Melania Serafini, who lives by Cesena near the Mediterranean coast. The 21-year-old doesn't own a car and travels to work every morning by tram. "Public transport is faster and a monthly pass costs peanuts."

With unemployment remaining close to a record high, car sales may decrease to 1.29 million this year, according to data from industry researcher IHS Automotive. That's 48 percent below the market peak in 2007 of 2.5 million deliveries. Car sales won't return to the 2 million-unit mark until at least 2020, IHS estimates.

Not everyone is happy with the push toward city centers with fewer autos. Marino's move in Rome has caused anger among small shop owners around the Colosseum who say their revenue will slump if cars can't double-park outside the stores.

"This is the last straw as we are hardly surviving in this time of crisis," said Roberto Mazzara, who runs a Sicilian patisserie in the area, where he serves traditional fare such as cannoli and cassata.

Marino remains unfazed by the criticism and can point to cities around the world such as Paris, London and New York as examples of places that have embraced alternatives to autos. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has pushed the creation of pedestrian areas in the city and this year started a program for commuters to rent bikes.

"The fact that, you know, Mr. Bloomberg in New York really removed the cars from a place like Times Square, then I think we really have the responsibility to remove cars" from the forums area, said Marino, who himself lived for the better part of two decades in Pennsylvania.

The Rome mayor, who has plans to increase bike-sharing services and biking lanes in the capital, seems to have the support of many Italians for his efforts to reduce congestion.

Eugenio Galli, a human resource manager at a Milan bank, sold his Renault Clio in 2008 and shifted to a bicycle for his commute to work, saving 250 euros a month in the process. He says that he has no intention to go back to owning an auto.

"I don't miss my car," said Galli, 46, who heads the biker association Fiab Ciclobby in Milan. "I ride my bike to work in all kinds of weather: rain, snow and wind and I like it. It helps me interact with what is around me."

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