Where did the bikes go?
It was November 2017 when the first yellow bikes appeared in the city of Rome. Parked here and there, you could see them waiting around in random spots, merging with and becoming part of the Capitoline’s landscape. On the side of the bike’s frame and on the basket on the front there was a yellow sign that said “OBike”. Soon the name was on everyone’s mouths.
While taking a walk around the city, you could notice a bike leaning against the wall of a hidden alley in the heart of Campo de’ Fiori; another one under Ponte Sisto; a couple waiting in the middle of a crowded piazza; another in front of the entrance gate of the Giardino degli Aranci. Tourists and citizens could hop on and freely roam around.
The bike fleets belonged to OBike – a Singapore based bike-sharing company, which operated in numerous European cities with discreet success before filing for bankruptcy during the summer of 2018 – and represented a dream come true for many city dwellers. In Italy, although the bikes were provided by the parent Singapore company, the service ran as its own independent thing in Rome, Turin, Ravenna, Lecce and Rimini, under the name of OBike Italia. As of July 2018 the company reached 230.000 thousand users only in the city of Rome, and 4000 daily travels.
The service was an example of a new model in sustainable mobility: free-floating bike sharing. This the same concept behind car-sharing services like Enjoy and Car2Go, but on two wheels. These kinds of services usually work through an app, with which the user scans a QR code printed on the vehicle, which is then unblocked and ready to use. Anyone can borrow a bike to run an errand, roam around for a while, go to work, and then park nearly everywhere, without worrying about placing it in any prearranged space – which is more typical of standard bike sharing services.
So with OBike Romans could finally park a bike without having to take off and carry the seat to the office in order to prevent it from being smuggled – a common anti-thief practice in Italian cities – nor worrying for the three bike locks not being enough to prevent it from disappearing, or finding their vehicle savagely disintegrated and cannibalized after a hard day of work, as it often happens.
The magic did not last long, however. Sadly, the first signs of vandalism and damage came a few weeks in after the service established itself in Rome. Some bikes got their wheels bent enough to make them impossible to ride, chains slipped off or broken, pedals stolen, and at times, someone decided to proclaim the vehicles as private property, locking them to lampposts and gratings or removing the seats to make them impossible for others to ride.
Perhaps, this degeneration culminated with the plunge of one of the bikes into the waters of the Tiber river at the hands of a young Roman woman, who, amidst the laughter of her friends, disposed of the bike pushing it from one of the river banks. They were apparently protesting against the malfunctioning of the service, and the paladins decided to post their noble deeds on an instagram video.
The images became viral and were reported to the police, who were then able to track down the culprits of the vandalic act and take the necessary actions. So at least there’s that. But this bullied bike was only the tip of the iceberg.
As of today, OBike Italia is gradually removing the vehicles from the country, and Rome has now officially become the only major European city without a bike sharing service. Although there are still some remnants under the Tiber bridges and bike carcases all around the city, the experiment has indeed failed. Again. In fact, it is not the first time that a bike sharing experiment goes wrong in Rome.
In 2009 another company, Roma’n’bike – this time property of the Spanish multinational corporation Cemusa – suspended their services in the city due to bureaucratic confusion and the failure to arrange a proper regulation of the service on behalf of the municipality of Rome.
Then, in 2017, another Asian bike-sharing company based in Hong Kong, Gobee, ended their services in numerous European cities, including Rome. The bikes became the target of vandalic acts done for the sole purpose of damaging the objects, which were found on roofs, rivers, and even trees! In Rome, the service was then replaced by OBike, which eventually turned out to be cheaper, but still unsuccessful.
According to many Romans, hooliganism and incivility are to be seen as the main culprits for the flight of bike sharing companies from the city of Rome. However, as a Roman, I believe there might be other reasons behind the constant failures of these experiments, and perhaps they are less sensationalistic than the occasional vandalic act.
Let’s be honest, Rome is clearly not bike friendly. Compared to other major European cities, cycling infrastructures are nearly non-existent; the condition of the roads is usually miserable – both in the city center and the outskirts – and cobblestones represent a large part of the paving downtown. And what about the traffic? It is infamous. Moving around with a bike might represent a non-voluntary suicide attempt. Biking in Rome is like playing Russian roulette.
Another issue that usually doesn’t come to mind is the topography of the city. Rome is built on hills: the famous “sette colli”. Who wants to run up and down a hill, with a heavy bike – made more hefty by the company to dissuade thieves, a strategy that clearly did not work – in the middle of Roman traffic, on cobblestones, risking to finish in the umpteenth sinkhole? Are we sure that bikes are the right vehicle to be shared in this city? Is it a realistic option, or a luxury for those who live in the city center?
According to Andrea Crociani, the ex-manager of OBike Italia, Romans should fear not. The city won’t be left long without a bike sharing service. However he believes that it should not be managed by the municipality but privates, although the administration should facilitate the advent of sustainable mobility systems, in an economically sustainable way.
“The real issue is to find a properly balanced sharing system. And I am not only talking about bikes”, he says, “but other vehicles as well. Rome is a big city, and needs electricity. There will be electric vehicles, there is no alternative to that”.
Crociani believes that companies that follow a Chinese approach like OBike are not sustainable. The price is too high, the quality is too low, and it is only based on travel revenues. However he believes that some companies are already trying to set things in motion differently. There will be a future for bike-sharing in Rome. But this will happen especially when Romans will stop feeling inferior to what they really are. The pessimistic attitude citizens often maintain tends to discourage possible investments from abroad.
“Vandals exist, but they’re just a tree that falls in a forest that grows”, Crociani says. “If we only place our attention on the fallen tree it becomes the main focus of attention, while there is a forest growing around it that nobody ever considers.”
So there is nothing left to do than trust in the future of sustainability, cross our fingers, and work on our citizenship self-esteem.