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economy lab

Pedestrians walk and ride bicycles past Rome's ancient Colosseum, February 8, 2004.ALESSIA PIERDOMENICO/Reuters

Blame the economy, high gas prices and congested streets built for chariots and horse-drawn carts: Italians are trading four wheels for two.

Bicycle sales in Italy have outpaced car sales for the first time since the early post-war era. According to La Repubblica and other Italian publications, bike sales climbed 10 per cent last year to 1.75 million, edging out the 1.748 million cars registered.

The surge in popularity of the bike in Italy would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. The country has been a car-mad since the 1950s, when the tiny, egg-shaped Fiat 500 gave mobility to the masses at a bargain price. Per capita car ownership rates are now among the highest in the world and Italians adore their car brands, which include Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Lancia.

But the love affair with four-wheeled machines is starting to wane. Among the issues are the deep Italian slump, gasoline prices that have hit €2 a litre, the rising costs of car ownership and trouble finding parking on eternally congested roads, many of them constructed to handle older modes of transportation.

A woman in Rome, for example, cited both cost and safety when asked why, after several years, she swapped her scooter for a bike.

Two wheels would not have eclipsed four had Italy's car market not been in free fall.

Figures published in the October edition of Quattroruote (Four wheels) magazine, the Italian gear heads' bible, show sales of all car brands fell almost 20 per cent, to 814,000 units, in the first six months of this year.

The overall European Union market – 27 countries – was down by 6.8 per cent.

The downward trend is still well in place. In August, a mere 56,000 new cars were registered in Italy, down 20.2 per cent over the same month a year ago.

Last month, Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of both Fiat SpA and Chrysler Group LLC, declared the European car market a "disaster."

In the euro zone countries, only Greece and Portugal, with declines of more than 40 per cent, have recorded worse car sales than those of Fiat's core Italian market.

Bikes are becoming more popular throughout Europe, especially in the countries, like Britain, that have built dedicated lanes for cyclists and launched bike-sharing schemes (Italy has relatively few bike lanes and the bike-sharing program in Rome, launched three years ago, collapsed after most of the bikes were stolen).

According to Cycling UK, British bike sales rose to almost 4-million in 2011 from 2.8-million in 2000. Reuters reported that bike sales in twice-bailed-out Greece, where youth unemployment is 50 per cent, has gone up by a quarter in the last two years.

The Bikeeurope website reports that sales in the French market rose 5.5 per cent last year – to 3.2 million bikes – after five years of apparently crisis-related declines.

In all markets, electric bikes – hybrid bikes that combine battery-powered thrust with pedalling – are taking off.

Amsterdam has become the first city in Europe where the number of bike trips exceed those taken by car. For some years, worldwide bike production has greatly exceeded car production, though bike use in some big countries, notably the United States, remains low.