Bicycle in Italy.

No sweat: an aversion to perspiration has helped stymie bike sharing in Rome. Photo: Louie Douvis

In the 1948 film The Bicycle Thief, the despairing protagonist crosses Rome in a vain search for his stolen bike. Today, mayor Ignazio Marino is playing a similar role.

While municipal bike sharing has thrived from Paris to Sao Paulo, the Eternal City is proving an exception. The Roma'n'bike program has been hobbled by crooks, legal troubles, political wrangling and geography - the city sits on its famous seven hills - combined with residents' reluctance to abandon their cars and scooters.

''Romans don't like to show up anywhere sweaty from a bike ride,'' said Federico Niglia, a history professor at Rome's Luiss University who owns a bicycle but rarely pedals. ''And you have theft, bureaucracy, political wrangling. The same problems that plague the country are dooming bike sharing.''

The Bicycle Thief.












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The Bicycle Thief.

Roma'n'bike was introduced in 2008, a year after Paris' successful Velib program and before those in New York, Milan and London.

''It's like the Roman Empire: we were first, now we're behind,'' said Eleonora Carletti, 32, who works in a restaurant near Via del Corso, where an abandoned bike rack props up a menu board showing the daily specials. Though she admits to enjoying Barcelona's program on a recent visit, at home ''I never really used the bikes because I have a car''.

Rome's failure is an embarrassment to mayor Marino, who cycles to work and was elected promising better mobility and less traffic. Though he was able to close streets near the Roman Forum to cars, he has made little headway in the bike-sharing debacle.

A formidable obstacle has been Rome's love affair with the internal combustion engine. The city has 978 motorised vehicles per 1000 inhabitants. That compares with 398 for Londoners and 415 for Parisians. In Paris, the Velib system has more than 20,000 bikes and 1800 stations.

Spanish advertising company Cemusa, which introduced bike sharing to Pamplona, Malaga and San Sebastian, got a contract to build Rome's program and run it for six months, later extended to a year.

Cemusa says it signed up more than 6000 users for about 200 bikes and 19 stations soon after it started six years ago. It expected the pilot program to give it an advantage once a city-wide contract was offered. But when Rome failed to put out the tender amid complaints about the prospect of a foreign company's involvement, Cemusa demanded more money or the possibility of selling advertising.

''Neither happened and we left,'' said Marco Dallamano, Cemusa's head in Italy.

In early 2009, then mayor Gianni Alemanno put the public transit agency in charge - and the wheels came off.

''A bus is not a bike,'' said Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike, a bike-sharing consulting firm in Washington, DC, that has advised cities such as Copenhagen and Arlington, Virginia. ''With municipalities, you don't necessarily have the skill set needed.''

Massimiliano Tonelli, 35, founder of Bikesharing Roma, a blog that has chronicled the program's woes, says the city made numerous missteps. For starters, it charged users from the beginning of each ride instead of giving them the first half-hour free.

Mr Alemanno did not respond to requests for comment.

Though a handful of bike stations were added after a new municipal company was created to take over in 2010, cycles disappeared or broke.

''You didn't need a credit card to register, they didn't come around often enough to check bikes, and most were stolen,'' Tonelli said. ''It was a disaster.''

In 2011, a tender was finally put in place offering advertising space in exchange for managing the service. Before bidding began, a local court ordered the contract be reissued because it did not clearly state what kind of ad spaces were on offer. City Hall approved a new process in March, promising 80 new stations and up to 1000 new bikes. There has been little visible progress.

''There will be 1000 new bikes by March 21,'' mayor Marino said in January. With the stands still empty, he may want to take note of the plot of The Bicycle Thief. After searching Rome, the protagonist never gets his bike back - though everyone else seems to have one.

''That's how I feel! Everywhere you turn in the world there are bike-sharing programs,'' said PhD student Carolina De Simone. ''Only Rome is left out.''

Bloomberg