With the nation’s unemployment at a record 10.7
percent and facing the prospect of deepening austerity cuts and rising
inflation, many Italians are trading in their more costly cars for cheaper
two-wheelers. Recent statistics on Italy’s automobile market show that it
contracted 24.7 percent in September 2012 compared to 2011, with new car sales
falling below bike sales in Italy for the first time since World War II. At the
same time, bike sales are higher than ever, climbing 10 percent last year to
1.75 million units sold, compared to the 1.748 million cars registered the same
year. There are many reasons why biking is better than driving, but there is
still room for improvement. Biking in Florence (and other Italian cities) is
still a far cry from the high safety levels of pedalling in more bike-friendly
cities across the Atlantic, such as Portland, Oregon. Julie Butterfield
reflects on her experience biking in Florence and the trials and tribulations
of getting from point A to point B on two wheels-and arriving in one piece.
To ride or not to ride. Environmentalists tell us we
should be using bikes instead of cars to cut down on pollution. Health experts
say we should ride to improve our health. City planners report less traffic
congestion when more people bike. But what do psychiatrists say? I suspect
psychiatry patients who travel by bike communicate a ratcheting toll of trauma
to their therapists.
I imagine that, like me, other expatriates in Florence
are proud the day they become one of the glamorous ciclisti in the city,
breezing through piazzas on their two-wheelers. But after the romance fades,
riders are faced with a quandary. That is, the quandary of riding one’s bike
versus, in the spirit of recognizing one’s mortality, not riding it and opting
for an alternative means of transport. Because it’s easy to get cold feet after
dueling with the pedestrians in borgo La Croce. It’s difficult to forget the
experience of that beeping C2 bus bearing down on you on a street the width of
a Kit Kat. Who can forget the first time a speeding cab forced you to scramble
onto a jam-packed sidewalk, where the lady with the stroller then yelled at you
for using her path? It’s those countless unforgettable moments, the times when
one’s blood turned to ice, that remind us of the glories of public
Smart cities paint bike paths to make it safer for
bikers to get around. Florence has some (disconnected) red-painted bike paths
that are supposed to be designated lanes for bikers only. Yet indifferent and
oblivious, tourists use the red paths for strolling and ignore the manic shrill
pitch of bikers’ bells. I’ve tried whistling to move people out of the path,
which can be effective, but it embarrasses anyone I’m with. Sometimes I have no
choice but to wade on foot through the mass of people getting off a luxury
cruiser, which heightens the risk of my handlebars snagging on someone’s
oversized floral blouse. However, the most common headache is caused by
schizophrenic walkers: the people who walk in a slow and predictable manner but
who, as soon as a biker comes within a nano-inch behind them, they cut off the
biker’s path by darting blithely toward a storefront.
It’s fortunate that there are bodyguards to protect
the important people, the ones that need saving from Florentine cyclists.
Megan, a frequent cyclist, was riding home from the train station one afternoon,
‘going really fast, headphones in, listening to an old Talking Heads album.’
She turned a corner and suddenly, ‘Huge man hands grabbed onto my handlebars
and picked up the front end of my bike.’ Before she could give the guy a piece
of her mind, she saw Snooki from Jersey Shore standing behind him. She
almost ran the reality show star over. Megan said that the bodyguard was
shouting to her-maybe about slowing down-but she’s not sure what he was saying
because she was still listening to Talking Heads.
Expatriate Terese says riding is stressful to her
because ‘other people, cars and bikers never seem to make any attempt to accommodate
anyone coming in the opposite direction.’ She adds, ‘It’s as if they just know
I will always give way!’ Games like chicken can be fun. But I’m not sure if it
should be requisite for riding our bikes in Florence.
Terese also brings up a disappointing realization
about those cute baskets some of us use in front of our bikes. She said her
bike feels ‘wobbly’ when she puts groceries in it. No one tells you that when
you buy your bike basket, that it’s just for looks. That the only thing it’s
good for is woven silk flowers. Weight in the basket throws off the bike’s
equilibrium, as if the handlebars have taken on a bowling ball. I myself had
grand visions of toting baguettes and wine in my bicycle basket. But a baguette
is too long and a wine bottle too fragile, and both threaten to launch from the
basket over cobblestones.
In a telling example of the animosity between drivers
and bikes, International School of Florence student Gabriel tells the story
about the day he was forced to slam on his brakes to dodge a driver who didn’t
stop at the crosswalk. He avoided crashing into the car but ended up flipping
over his bike, slamming into the driver’s car door. At first, perhaps out of
compassion, the driver was apologetic, worried about Gabriel’s condition.
However, the motorist soon changed his mind and decided instead to be angry,
blaming Gabriel for the accident as he stood there, bleeding from his arm.
Perhaps because my riding style is grandmotherly,
hypercautious and snaillike, after a year of riding my bike in Florence, I
haven’t had a serious accident. Cynically, I assume motorists want nothing more
than to turn bikers into road kill, so I never give them the benefit of the
doubt. But the secret to avoiding bicycling accidents, the unquestionable method
of deterring danger, the indisputable way to ensure safety from the hazards of
riding your bike on a Florence street is perfectly foolproof: take ATAF.