Visiting Rome: What It's Like to Be in a City Overrun by Cars and Scooters

The Roman Coliseum in the city of Rome

Lloyd Alter

Rome is a truly wonderful city, full of history and architecture. It is also full of cars, motorcycles and scooters. It was not designed for them; Mussolini tried to update the city and built a few roads like the Via dei Fori Imperiali leading to the Colosseum, destroying churches, splitting the forum in half, ruining the archaeology during construction and shaking what's left today in what has been called an enterprise more destructive than the sack of Rome. You can't build underground parking garages or more subways; there is just too much history below. One would think that a response to this would be to promote alternatives like walking and cycling; the opposite is true, as they make it just about impossible to do either.

credit: Lloyd Alter

There is a pedestrian infrastructure in Rome, like the zebra stripe crosswalk shown in the photo; the problem is that it is completely ignored and used as more parking space. Cars just fill it up, making it almost impossible to cross the street.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Where you find the rare traffic light, it is green for an incredibly short time (if you don't start the second it turns green you are not going to make it across) and when you get to the other side, where do you go? The cars and scooters are blocking the road.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It is just completely blatant and ubiquitous.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It is true that in many ways, cars and people coexist in ways you don't see in North America. The italians know how to drive, and they are considered at fault if they hit anyone. Our guide told us that the way you cross a street in Rome is to look like you are not afraid of anything, close your eyes and just step out and walk. It works- the cars will always give right of way to the pedestrian. Their eyes are on the road. With few painted lines, people stepping out and so many cars moving so fast, they have to be.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Most of the time, however, the pedestrian is treated a lot better when they walk down the road than when they try to stick to the sidewalks that are narrow, often blocked and filled with everything from cars to garbage.

credit: Lloyd Alter

There just isn't room for it all, and the pedestrian is the one who gets the squeeze.

credit: Lloyd Alter

It isn't just the roads that suffer, it is the whole public realm as squares and parks are paved and taken over for parking. This might have been a lovely boulevard.

credit: Lloyd Alter

As for bikes, there were a few here and there, and I admired this lovely number on a fancy shopping street, all decked out in leather accessories. But the roads are made of uneven basalt squares, bike lanes are almost nonexistent, there are so many fast moving cars and pedestrians just stepping out from between cars, it looks dangerous and is: 2,500 cyclists have been killed in Italy in the last decade.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Nobody is going to be building massive new infrastructure projects in Italy in the near future; the country is broke. But there is a lot they could do to promote more biking and walking, starting with simply enforcing the rules they have about parking in zebra crossings, giving pedestrians a little more time at the lights and maybe even putting in a few bike lanes. They certainly have to do something.