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Tag Archives: tourists

oBike Bike Sharing in Rome

18 Apr

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Last Saturday I had the ambitious plan to take a long walk from my house to a chapel I had been wanting to visit in San Giovanni. Google said it would take me an hour, but I was fairly certain it would be around 40 minutes or less.

By the time I was about two-thirds done with my walk, I was huffing, puffing, and ready to be done. Out of nowhere, on a random street corner, there was a yellow oBike, just sitting there. Tired of walking, and armed only with my cell phone, I decided I’d try my luck and see if I could sign up on the spot and get the bike to finish my trip.

Signing up for oBike

I was slightly amused by the fact that the oBike instructions on the bicycle itself are in German, thus reminding me of how our northern European counterparts are much more likely to tool around their cities on a bike.

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Let’s face it, folks: Rome has never been known as a cyclist’s dream city. Great cities for cycling are relatively flat, like Amsterdam. And also—north of here. While it’s ambitious to try to “green up” the Eternal City, Romans are notoriously committed to their cars. Not to mention the fact that Rome is also famously known as the City of Seven Hills.

And yet, oBike, a young Singapore startup, launched in Rome last November and has been adding to its local fleet ever since. In an article last December, oBike’s Italy director said, and I quote: “The problems and the complexities of a megalopolis like Rome don’t scare us.” His courage is honorable, but whether the service can actually succeed in Rome where multiple others have come before it and failed, remains to be seen.

In any case, let’s cut to the chase: sign-up is a breeze. With my smartphone’s data connection, in a matter of minutes I was able to download the oBike app, sign in with Facebook, and connect my Paypal account for payment. There is a €5 refundable deposit (shown as a €45 discount off of the normal €50 deposit price) and a minimum account balance of €5 required to start.

Unlocking and locking the oBike

The oBike uses your phone’s app and Bluetooth connection to control the lock, a black and metal ring located around the back tire. The lock opens automatically when you activate the current bike through the app.

When you’re ready to end your trip and park the bike, you have to manually slide the lock back into place. You also need to keep your phone’s Bluetooth connection active at the same time, so the app can register the bike as locked and properly end your trip.

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To locate a bike, the app uses a map to show you where the bikes currently are, and allow you to select one. You can reserve it for 10 minutes before you reach it to unlock it; or, if you see a bike parked in the city you can approach it and use the app to unlock it. You do this by scanning its QR code, which is located on the top of the handlebars.

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The bike starts off with a minimum 50-cent charge, and then costs just 50 cents for each 30-minute period thereafter. You can also get a “VIP Card” through the app, which allows you to pay a set fee to keep the bicycle for an extended period of time (€1.50/24 hours; €2.99/3 days; €4.99/7 days; €9.99/30 days; €19.99/90 days). You can pay using a credit card or a Paypal account.

oBike operating areas in Rome and parking

You can ride the oBike wherever you want throughout the city, but you are only allowed to park it in specific areas of the city. The app marks the non-designated parking zones of the city in red. oBike told me the current parking zones include the I and II municipalities (roughly the entire historic center, Trastevere and the Vatican as well as north Rome up to the Salaria), as well as parts of the V and VIII municipalities. For tourists this is probably sufficient.

Since the bike has its own autonomous locking system, you can basically just leave it wherever you choose. This being Rome, people definitely do just that, hence the random bike I encountered during my walk, which was parked smack-dab in the middle of a traffic island at a busy intersection. The app’s map designates small blue areas where it encourages you to park, and you can earn reward credit points for doing so.

Credit point system

I live just south of the designated parking areas, and so I unknowingly parked in the red zone when I ended my journey back home. I was alerted to this error by the app after I locked the bike. The app told me it was docking my account 10 credits. That’s when I discovered the point penalty system oBike uses to incentivize its users to park appropriately.

When you sign up, you get 100 points to start with. You can earn extra points by doing certain things, such as parking in the blue areas designated on the app’s map, reporting broken bikes or improperly parked bikes, or sharing your ride information on Facebook. oBike said it’s counting on this “community” aspect to deter theft and vandalism.

Losing points makes the service fee incrementally rise. You get docked for things like:

  • parking in the unauthorized city zones (10 points, red zone on the app’s map);
  • forgetting to lock the bike, without it being stolen (20 points);
  • breaking traffic laws, adding your own lock, losing the bike, or illegally transporting the bike (reduces your credit to zero).

Customer service

I hadn’t noticed the red zone on the app, and since I had picked the bike up literally in the middle of an intersection, I hadn’t taken the time to study or learn the system beforehand. I was sort of ticked off that I got points docked, because the authorized and unauthorized zones didn’t seem clear to me or easy to understand. I hadn’t seen any red zone on the map. I wrote to customer service to ask them why I was docked points. I thought this would also be a good test to see how responsive they are.

I wrote on a Saturday and was told I’d get an initial response within 48 hours. I actually didn’t get the response until Tuesday morning, asking for my account number since I had signed up through Facebook, so they could look at my specific trip information. I responded, and less than 24 hours later I received a nice note explaining that I had, in fact, parked in a red zone, but they would re-credit the points to my account, which they did.

Problem resolved, and I finally had information about the specific zones where the bikes can be parked, which I shared above. I do see the red areas on the zone map now, too. I think I probably just hadn’t looked well enough, so it was nice of them to credit me anyways.

Practical considerations and tips

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Bike sharing is an ambitious and idealistic notion here in Rome. I hate to be the typical Roman pessimist, because I’d really like to see this service succeed here, but once again, Rome is not a hospitable place at all for cyclists, unfortunately. Here are some pros and cons to the service, as I see them.

oBike bike sharing in Rome pros:

  • Fun way to get around the city if you don’t want to rent a scooter
  • Cheap
  • Easy to sign up, easy to use
  • No set parking lots; park bike anywhere within designated city zones
  • Bike basket makes it easy to transport small items like a purse or shopping bag
  • Lots of bikes in the city; oBike told me in the email they sent that they recently increased the fleet in Rome, which in December was reported to already be 1,900 bikes in the trial phase
  • App provides lots of fun information such as a map tracking your trip and a count of calories burned and kg of carbon emissions reduced; your trips are saved in a tab in your account profile

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oBike bike sharing in Rome cons:

  • City bikes without gears or electric pedal assist are hard to pedal up Rome’s numerous hilly and sloped areas
  • No helmets, so you have to provide your own, or risk going without (there’s no bicycle helmet law in Rome)
  • Rome has little to no public bike parking, forcing you to park the bike “creatively” on sidewalks or other random areas
  • Bike paths are virtually non-existent in Rome, making the danger of riding a bicycle likely much higher than that of even a motorino scooter

Only time will tell if oBike, whose ambitious motto is “the future of transportation,” is able to break the curse of repeated failures by other bike sharing services in Rome. A similar Hong Kong-based company, GoBee Bike, recently bit the dust after a valiant attempt, citing that “nearly 60% of our European fleet got either damaged, stolen or privatized.” Yikes. (Granted, The Guardian reports that service allowed users to “leave the bike anywhere, unlocked [emphasis added].” Doh.)

In addition to its home country of Singapore, where it launched its first 1,000 bikes in February 2017, oBike is also available in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, France, Sweden, and Norway.

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What Not to Wear in Rome as a Tourist

8 Jun

Affectionately subtitled: Super Sexy Tourist Attire

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So, fate had it that I had to run a quick errand near the Colosseum metro stop the other morning. While waiting for my friend to arrive so I could drop off some things I needed to give him, I sat down in the small circular piazza above the metro stop, and realized I had placed myself at exactly ground zero for a super-mega tour group staging point. Like you know when a cruise unleashes like 200 people and they all divide into color-coded stickered groups of 20? Hashtag #scary. And yet, at the same time, a super fun sort of sociological anthropological experiment in tourist observation. My ethnographic notes for you are thus:

1. Americans love to ask each other “Where are you from?” It ties us together. I witnessed the most brilliant exchange. Two twenty-something young married couples start off chit-chatting, and, after the famous “Where are you from?” end up not only discovering that they live like the next town over from each other, but that they have friends who went to the same high school, and that they’re all four flying back on the same flight. Oh, love.

2. Two is the photo above. Why black short socks with loafers and shorts? I don’t know. I just cannot get on board with this look.

3. Waiting for a friend in front of the Colosseum is fabulous, no matter how many years you live in this city. It just simply never gets old. Never.

My title is a bit misleading because I don’t really have any exciting content for tourists looking for fashion tips. I’ve lived in Rome for too long and I’m far too cynical for that.

But, well, now I’m feeling a bit guilty, see, so, ok, fine. Here you go. My top PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T DO THIS because it’s just basically super gag-worthy for those of us who live here (oh now, calm down, you don’t need to go into the comments and berate me for being snobby and opinionated. You won’t be telling me anything I don’t already know, so save your typing for comments on Perez Hilton’s blog instead.)

1. These:

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No, seriously. 20-something college girls walk around the city in these, and for the life of me, at the risk of sounding like an old, prudish granny, I ask myself: what is the appropriate environment for wearing these shorts? Because I think they are pajamas but I could be mistaken. I’m sure they’re entirely appropriate attire on college campuses across the US. But frankly in front of a centuries-old church, they just look … [adjective]. See how fun I am on my blog? I let you play Mad Libs!

2. These:

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Hey, come in really close, I want to tell you a secret. Do you know what Italians call American kids they see walking around the Eternal City in $2 Old Navy plastic and foam flip flops? They call them “piedi neri,” black feet. Want to know why? Because, as I’m sure you’ve discovered if you’ve ever walked around the Eternal City in flip flops, it takes but a minute for the bottoms of your feet (and probably the tops, too) to become totally and completely black. It’s the truth. This city is dirty and you should not be walking around it in shower shoes. Just saying.

Oh, and BTW, attenzione Italian language enthusiasts: a reader of mine going by the name of Emanuele who lives in Boston wrote a variation on my 51 Things I’ve Learned in Italy and wrote it in Italian, Le 70 Cose Che Noi Italiani Abbiamo Imparato in USA…because I guess he had to show me up and add like, twenty extras. And I’ll have you note that right there, hanging out at number twenty-three, is this: “23 – I sandali infradito, le cosiddette Flip-Flop, sono il culto pop di ogni donna americana al pari degli zoccoli di legno per le casalinghe italiane.” Which translates exactly to: “Flip flops are the cult classic shoes of every American woman, the equivalent of the wooden clogs for Italian housewives.” Whaa? Wooden clogs? What are these of which you speak? Maybe he’s talking about the Dr. Scholl’s they sell in like every single Italian pharmacy. How weird is that? Oh and just another lil’ BTW for y’all: don’t screw up saying zoccoli by accidentally saying zoccole. Just—don’t. Why? Because when you put that into Google Translator, and Google Translator gives you “hoes,” I can assure you that Google Translator is not referring to a garden implement. That is all.

3. This:

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Actually has nothing to do with anything. Hell, “touristes” isn’t even Italian, for the love of God! What kind of blog is this, anyways? I just thought it was awesome that someone found the need for a sign forbidding tourists to walk around in a jock strap. Good times. Kind of reminds me of this.

Oh, people. This is what I’m reduced to, in lieu of a hot date on a Saturday night. I tell you what. Taking one for the team. You can thank me later.

Oh yeah. One last one. Call it 3a. This:

Ew.

Trust me: puke and broken glass is not a good look on you.