Photo: Bicycle Thieves (1948)
For the first time since the end of the Second World War the number of bicycles sold in Italy has overtaken the number of cars.In a radical departure for the car-mad country, home to legendary marques such as Fiat, Ferrari and Lamborghini, 1,750,000 bikes were bought in 2011 compared to 1,748,000 motor vehicles.
As austerity cuts deepen and petrol prices hit a new high, the purchase of new cars has dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s.
Families are buying bikes, ditching their second cars and signing up to car pool schemes – a major shift for a nation which has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world, with around 60 cars for every 100 people.
Car ownership became a symbol of the Italian economic miracle in the 1960s and has steadily grown since, but as unemployment rises and living costs soar, it has become an unaffordable luxury for many Italian families.
Petrol recently hit two euros a litre, the highest in Europe, and it is estimated that the average car in Italy costs €7,000 a year to run.
More than 60 years after the making of ‘The Bicycle Thief’, a classic film about a man desperately hunting for the stolen bike that he needs for work, Italians have also hauled around 200,000 rusty old bikes from their garden sheds and attics and restored them to roadworthiness.
“More and more people are deciding to bring their old models out of the garage or the cellar,” said Pietro Nigrelli, of industry association Confindustria.
“Bikes are easy to use and they cost little. And on distances of five kilometres or less, they are often faster than other modes of transport.”
Out of a population of 60 million, 6.5 million Italians use a bike to get to work or school, while 10.5 million use them occasionally, mostly at weekends.
Italians have a new-found appreciation of the convenience of bikes and the fact that they do not pollute the environment.
“People who have only ever driven cars are changing their thinking,” Antonio Della Venezia, the president of the Italian Federation of Bike Lovers, told La Repubblica newspaper.
“I don’t think Italy will go back to the levels of cars sales that we saw before 2008.”
As bike sales boom, the car industry is going through its worst crisis for decades – new car sales in August were down 20pc on the year before.
Sergio Marchionne, the head of Fiat, said last month that “anyone operating in the automotive sector in Europe today is experiencing varying degrees of unhappiness. The European car market is a disaster”.
Italians are not just cutting down on their beloved cars – they are also spending less on food and groceries.
Six out of 10 Italian families have cut their expenditure on food, including staples such as olive oil and milk, according to a study by Coldiretti, the country’s main agricultural association.
Consumer spending is expected to fall by more than three per cent by the end of this year, the sharpest drop since Italy was founded as a republic in 1946, according to Confcommercio, a consumer association.
The only sectors bucking the crisis are mobile phones, computers and discount supermarket chains, the association said in a report.
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