Maybe This Time, the Bikes Won’t End Up in the River


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In 2013, Rome pulled the plug on its bike share program after it ran out of money and cars kept double-parking in front of its bike racks. Last year, a Hong Kong company gave up after many of its green bicycles ended up in the Tiber river. Months later, a Singapore company bailed after Romans stole the yellow bikes and broke them down for parts.

Rome has been a bike share wasteland, but Uber says things will be different for the shiny new red bikes it has introduced all over the city.

“We’ve tested ours on Rome’s cobblestones,” said Michele Biggi, the manager of Uber’s Jump electric-bike program in southwestern Europe, who added that previous competitors’ bikes weren’t up to the city’s demands and “could have fallen down with just a gust of wind.”

He has big plans for the Uber bikes, he said, which “will change Rome and give the city a new lifeblood.”


Uber and its competitors have already introduced similar pedal-assisted bikes and electric scooters in Paris, London, Lisbon, Brussels and other cities that in several cases are overrun with rolling menaces. (Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has decried “the scooter anarchy.”) But Rome, the first Italian city to get Uber’s electric-bicycle service, is not any other European city.

Rome could be a bike-share dream in one respect: there is no shortage of demand. The city has only two finished subway lines (a third is perennially under construction), and buses come late, fail to show up and occasionally explode.

Driving on the city’s notoriously clogged streets is a nightmare. Parking is worse.

But the obstacles to a bike share program are daunting: Rome’s infamous potholes, its mounds of uncollected trash, double-parked cars, a strong vandal spirit in place since the actual Vandals sacked Rome, and a local resistance to change and physical exertion.

Rome’s embattled mayor, Virginia Raggi, urged Romans to show that the city is civilized after all.

“If we don’t want these bikes to be badly treated, guess who it is up to?” Ms. Raggi said at the Uber bikes’ unveiling on Oct. 21. “Romans themselves are the first defense against degradation.”

The company is introducing a fleet of 2,800 bicycles that can be left practically anywhere, and they seem to be everywhere.

They are parked near the Colosseum, stashed in alleyways or rested against stop signs. Newspapers reported that government officials had parked two bikes in the courtyard of the Italian equivalent of the White House.

Uber has a complicated history in Rome. In 2013, the company introduced a version of its car service and it grew fast, threatening Rome’s taxi drivers, who staged strikes. An Italian court later outlawed the service on the grounds of unfair competition. Ultimately, Uber was limited to operating its more expensive luxury-car service, Uber Black.

Some Romans are happy that the company is trying again.

“They have simply saved my life,” said Luca Zanini, a 25-year-old college student. “When the bus is not on time, I always use them.”

But not all Romans are fans. “Rome Is Gross” a well-known social media feed decrying the city’s degradation, has posted complaints about the high price of the Uber bikes, which cost 50 cents to unlock and then 20 cents for every minute of use. That is about the rate charged by car-sharing services.

“You can afford it only if you live in the city center,” said Andrea Quatrini, a 52-year-old public sector employee. “Otherwise it’s impossible.”

So far, Uber is happy with how things are going. It says that GPS locaters on the bikes allow for constant monitoring, making them less vulnerable to theft. The company says there have not been any specific acts of vandalism.

But the bikes’ baskets are already doubling as trash cans in a city without many of them. And photos circulating on a Facebook page for Roman cyclists showed bikes that had been knocked over like red dominoes near the Bocca della Verità, or Mouth of Truth.

“We hope those who damage them will be severely punished,” the post read.


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