Rome Travel Guide

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Riding a Scooter in Rome

OK.  You've succumbed to temptation and rented a scooter, despite never having ridden one.  You've got your pretty wife on the back, holding on tight, and you're pulling out from Bici Baci into Rome traffic.  What should you think about?  What do you need to know? 

1) Road Hazards

Under an overpass, waiting out the rain

     Rome's roads have been deteriorating for more than a decade.  Potholes abound, and if you hit one before you see it, you could lose control.  Although much of the Lungotevere (the broad street that runs on either side of the river) has been paved in asphalt (over brick - or the Roman sanpietrini - see our post on these), brick streets are common in the city and they pose special problems for scooters.  They're rough (especially on the passenger), and more slippery than asphalt, especially when wet.  Be exceedingly cautious when riding on any wet surface; turn slowly and gradually.  You can slip and fall, too, on any of the city's many tram tracks, with their shiny metal surfaces (again, especially dangerous when wet).  If you're going the same direction as the tram tracks, crossing them is tricky business; to do so safely, increase the angle of crossing just a bit, so that your tire doesn't ride the track.  Watch out, too, for loose gravel, anywhere, but especially at the junctures of country roads or the entrances to quarries, brickyards, and other construction facilities.  When possible, avoid turning on gravel.  When it rains, stay off the scooter.  If you're on the scooter and it starts raining, join most Romans and find an underpass (or a cafe) until the storm passes (photo above right). 

2)   The Threat of What's Behind
     Most of your attention will be properly focused on what's ahead of you, but you'll need to be conscious of vehicles behind you, too.  Here's the problem: if you were driving in the States, you'd have a lane that was yours.  That's not the case in Rome, where two-way streets will be marked only by a center line, and multiple-lane streets going one direction (say, the Lungotevere) will usually have no lane markings at all.  So it's a bit of a free-for-all out there.  Because you're new to the scooter you'll often (and reasonably) be driving a bit more slowly than the rest of the traffic, and that means that you'll be passed often, and sometimes at very high speeds.  You'll need to keep an eye on your rear-view mirrors, but you can't do that all the time, and despite your best efforts you'll often be taken by surprise by cars, big scooters, and motorcylcles--some of them crotch-rockets, coming from the rear.  Indeed, some cycle drivers enjoy coming close to a slower-moving vehicle (that is, you), then moving sharply into its path.  It looks dangerous, and it is, but it happens all the time.  Important advice: hold your line.  Unless there's a reason to move left or right--and you've checked your mirrors to make sure it's OK--don't.  Just keep going on the line you have. 

3.  Leader of the Pack.
     One of the pleasures of riding a scooter in Rome, and one of the reasons that it makes sense for so many to do so, is that scooters have the right to go between cars and find their way to the front of a group of vehicles waiting, say, at a stop light.  That's not true everywhere--you'd be ticketed in Buffalo if you did it--but it's well-established custom in Rome.  So there you are, sitting in front with 10 or 15 other scooters, waiting for the light to change.  And here's the rub: when the light changes, you have an obligation to accelerate in a timely, consistent fashion.  If you dally--if you're looking at your map, or are otherwise distracted--the people behind you won't like it.  And if (this happened to me once) you're not concentrating, the light changes, and you're not sure whether to go or not, and you start and then slow down or stop in your indecision, you'll be hit from behind. 

4.  Riding the Sidewalk
     In extreme traffic situations, where the roadway is so crowded that even scooters can't make progress, some scooters will take to the sidewalk.  This is most common on the last stretch of the Lungotevere, heading south, just before Porta Portese.  Not a good idea. 

5.  Cutting in, the Italian Version
     In Italy, it seems to be the custom that a vehicle with even a slight advantage on the vehicle next to it (say, two or three feet), may cut in front.  If you did that in LA, you'd be shot, and in most American cities it would be considered rude and wrong and provoke much honking and cursing.  Not so in Rome.  We don't advise that you engage in this behavior, only that you know it exists, so when it happens to you you'll understand. 

6.  Riding the White Line
Would you ride the white line?
     On crowded two-lane roads, especially those exiting and entering the city, it is customary for scooters to use the middle of the road--i.e., the area straddling the white line in the middle--as a third lane.  Scooters going the direction of the heaviest traffic have an informal right-of-way to the white line, so that scooters moving with less traffic are expected, sometimes and now and then, to defer.  Nonetheless, scooters going both directions will ride the white line, zipping in and out as they do so.  This can be exciting--like being part of a human video game--but it is obviously not for the faint of heart or the novice driver.  For scooters, riding the asphalt shoulder (on the right) is also permitted--indeed, encouraged and expected (Dianne here - I don't like being on the right; too many unforeseen obstacles).
     Sometimes, it's OK even to use a good portion of the left lane.  The best example is the intersection of via del Circo Massimo and via Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the latter named after the church on the corner that houses the famous tourist attraction, the Bocca della Verita'.  The bottleneck occurs as vehicles move southward over two lanes through Piazza Boca della Verita' and must negotiate a stoplight.  Dense traffic backs up through the piazza, often preventing scooters from using the usual between-the-lanes tcchnique.  Rather than wait, scooters cross the white line, use the oncoming lane (especially when there's no oncoming traffic) to bypass the jam and reach the front.  If you're in Rome for very long, you'll be doing it, too. 

7.  Speeding
    You'd have to behave like Mario Andretti to get a speeding ticket in Rome.  Although there has been some concern about excessively high speeds on the freeways outside the city, that doesn't seem to have carried over to the city streets.  There are no posted limits and, to our knowledge, no customary limit.  In most situations, the traffic determines how fast vehicles can move, and most Romans proceed at a reasonable pace for a given place and condition.  It's a great pleasure to drive without constantly checking the speedometer. 

8.  Restricted Areas
     Unlike automobiles, which can be restricted from driving in the historic center, scooters can go anywhere--or almost.  One of Rome's most important thoroughfares, via del Corso (running north and south betweeen Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo) is restricted, limited to pedestrians and special vehicles (small buses, taxis, emergency vehicles, police, big wigs, hotel guests), except in the wee hours of the morning, when you'll be asleep - or, if you have jet lag, get up and drive it; it's a great time to scooter through Rome, as we noted in an earlier post.  As a result, getting from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia, or vice-versa, involves a maze-like journey through the city's medieval core.  Fun or irritating, depending on your mood.

9.  If You've Never Driven a Scooter 

Watch for opening car doors
      A few thoughts for the real novice.  Turning a scooter is counterintuitive.  You'd think that to turn the scooter left, you would pull on the left handlelbar.  Nope.  To turn left, you push gently on the left handle.  This push intiates a slight body lean, which turns the scooter.  Find yourself a quiet place to try this a few times, alternating light left and right pushes. 
      For the passenger: avoid sudden movements at any time and, on turns, don't try to help; avoid leaning to assist the turn or leaning to counter it.  Just sit there.  And, as if it needs to be said, riding side-saddle is stupid (photo below right, but she was in Islamic dress; so maybe she had no choice).  For those who have rented a 50cc scooter: because you'll be going more slowly than much of the traffic, stay to the right, near the shoulder.  For all drivers: when driving near parked cars, watch for opening doors.  Don't get "doored."!  

10.  What to Wear
Bare arms and hands look good, but what if she falls?
Imagine your scooter going down, even at the slow speed of 25 mph.  For 20 or 30 yards, you're underneath your bike, your arms and legs pressed against asphalt or brick.  To protect yourself from serious abrasions, wear a leather jacket, jeans, gloves, and boots (yes, uncomfortable in the Roman summer).  Helmets are required by law in all of Italy (though you'll still see some helmetless young riders in small towns), and full helmets, the kind that cover the chin, are by far the most protective.  To protect your eyes, especially if your scooter lacks a windshield, keep your face shield down. 

11.  Watch Your Attitude

Riding side-saddle, and with a long skirt,
is really dumb, but if you're a woman
in Islamic dress, maybe you have no choice

        Driving a scooter can be a heady experience  Novice or expert, it's not uncommon to feel cool, confident, even cocky, especially with a woman on the back.  But you should know that when you feel that way, it's a bad sign.  It mean you're focusing on yourself rather than the road.  There's no room for that on a two-wheeled vehicle moving 40 miles an hour.  Get back to work!



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Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Hi Anonymous,
We really appreciate your comments. We obviously share an interest in scooters.
RST has never solicited or accepted a post from someone with a commercial interest, which your xtreme scooter site would seem to be. Nonetheless, we aren't totally opposed to the idea. If you would like to submit something, please begin by sending us one or two of your best ideas. And keep in mind that if things go beyond that, we reserve the right to edit the final product and control all content (that's been our policy for the few guest bloggers we've had). Bill and Dianne