By Federico Martellozzo
Recently, Salvaiciclisti (literally “Save the cyclists” in Italian), a well-known movement within the cyclist activist movements in Rome, made a big step, evolving from its roots as an informal movement (even though it had some sort of internal structure) to gaining the status of an official association. This is a great achievement worth celebrating as well as congratulating for the plethora of various cyclist-happenings and gatherings that they have organized in the past.
When the movement started in 2006, other cycling-activist movements/groups were sceptical towards Salvaciclisti because they were new and most of all because they had this “weird” idea that a big change could only happen through a critical and constructive dialogue with institutions instead of excluding any sort of contact with them. In fact, cycling activism in Rome was initially influenced by the international Critical Mass movement, which somehow stands for and aims at presenting itself as a spontaneous gathering with no structure; therefore, collaboration with such an unstructured group of “social actors” had proved quite difficult. Several cycling activists and experienced bike mechanics who actively frequented and participated in the newly emerging community bike workshops in Rome agreed upon the fact that cycling activism In Rome was born as a way to challenge the public administration because they believed the administration was to be blamed for the disastrous state of both cyclist-friendly infrastructure and policies in Rome. Consequently, a new movement aimed at building a dialogue with institutions was seen with suspicion by them.
Since that time, Salvaicilcisti has grown in the shadows, silently, with its actions slowly starting to take root; as a result, it currently has several thousand members and is a recognised interlocutor respected by both activists and the general public. In this light, the institutionalization process that Salvaiciclisti has achieved in becoming an association is even more important. Furthermore, it seems that the recent change in power in the Campidoglio (the Mayor’s office in Rome) has led to one of the historical members of Salvaiciclisti being nominated for an official role in the urban mobility office for one of the local Municipalities of the city. His name is Marco Pierfranceschi and he is well-known for having first mapped an urban cycling-circuit of 44 km around Rome via GPS, and subsequently developing the design and underlining the strengths and weaknesses of the trail, and freely providing this to the public administration. His work has now been recognized by the local administration who have taken it as the official base with which to develop and implement a cycling-friendly infrastructure.
However, the success of Salvaciclisti is not only seen through their institutional achievements but by the sheer numbers in terms of activists and kilometres ridden every year since they began. For the second straight year, Rome placed fourth in the European Cycling Challenge (ECC), an urban cycling competition among European cities where the city that “rides” the longest total distance wins, after having previously placed third overall in the 2014 competition. Participation in the competition is not exclusive to Salvaiciclisti supporters, however it is through this movement – excuse me, association – that the competition became popular among Roman cyclists: thanks to Salvaciclisti, in 2014 former Major Ignazio Marino also signed up for the competition (participating under the flag of romapedaladipiù, the name used by Salvaciclisti in registering Rome for the ECC). The results of the 2016 ECC shows that Roman cyclists, accounting for roughly 1700 human engines, ride approximately 200,000 kilometres a month, ranks Rome 34th in the challenge for the most km/per capita. These results are outstanding given the poor conditions of cobblestone streets, roads and mobility infrastructure generally in Rome – those who have visited Rome know what I am talking about – and this was achievable only thanks to the effort and the stubbornness of Roman cyclists.
One of the most famous and driven Roman urban cyclists, best known by the nickname Rotafixa, reported that beyond all the absolute figures there are two things that are relevant and which are noticeable in terms of demonstrating the bike-hungriness these in Rome. First, in past years the level of participation in the ECC was similar to that in 2016, demonstrating that the current “war” on cyclists, an on-going battle fought on a daily basis in Rome and one that aims at hindering an alternative mobility rationale, is not enough to slow the increase of cycling-demand in Rome which is continues to achieve outstanding results and “big” numbers. For example, the public transit companies in Rome recently abandoned a project for multimodal transport, foregoing a previous policy allowing passengers to bring non-folding bikes on public transportation. In spite of this, cycling-demand is growing and big numbers are useful because (in line with the Critical Mass movement) they are help to exert stronger pressure on the public for more public cycling space. However, absolute numbers can be mis/interpreted in many ways, but what cannot be denied is that while bike-mobility in Rome accounted for only 0.6% of the total trips taken in 2012, this more than doubled to 1.4% by 2015, showing that bike-mobility is rapidly growing. Therefore, it is likely that the number of cyclists in the near future will keep growing and the need for an association to back them up is greater than ever. The question is whether the public administration will be intelligent enough to avoid claims of intellectual property for these results, instead realizing that there is a growing need that shall be appropriately addressed. Secondly, the data arising from the ECC also show that despite the lack of valuable, and perhaps even only decent, infrastructure for cycling-mobility people are keen on using bikes for their everyday needs.
Image credit: Lorenzo Quaranta (http://roma.salvaiciclisti.it/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/heatmap_2016_hd.jpg)
Heat maps highlighting which streets are more frequently used by urban cyclists in Rome give a great advantage to the public administration, which only knows that there is growing demand but not necessarily where this demand is located. Thus, this heat map indicates areas that should be prioritized in being equipped with adequate cycling-friendly infrastructure. Thus the voluntary participatory game of the ECC is also source of precious data for sustainable urban transport planning that would likely be costly if not gathered via citizen gathered, bottom-up practices. In conclusion, once again the experience of cycling activists in Rome shows how participatory activism can be a valuable, yet well-performing, ally in fostering a sustainable societal transition.
 See https://www.comune.roma.it/PCR/resources/cms/documents/PGTU_07022014_newdocumento_di_discussione.pdf and http://www.greenemotion-project.eu/upload/pdf/deliverables/D9_5-Environmental-impacts-of-widespread-shifting-towards-electricity-based-mobility-V5_submitted.pdf for more information.