Car Free Europe

Living outside of Rome and getting used to the pedestrian lifestyle has made it almost unbearable for me to tolerate Rome’s traffic now.  The first few days of December saw blocks on traffic to bring the dangerous levels of pollution down — a common practice here that is frustrating if you have to get things done, but amazing to see how peaceful the city becomes.  I asked architect/designer/friend Tom Rankin of Studio Rome to give me some perspective, and to compare Europe’s major capitals in terms of how these pre-automobile cities have dealt with the problem of traffic:

That’s a great question and, having done a fair bit of traveling this summer and fall, I find myself pretty well-positioned to respond.  European cities evolved around the needs of people but for a period in the 20th century they opened their gates to automobiles with mixed results. When there were just a few cars zipping around Paris, London and Rome, usually driven by suave and sophisticated Europeans or colorful expats, it was intoxicating.   The thrill ended when cities became saturated and, far from providing freedom, cars became toxic traffic traps.

Fiat 500

By now most European cities have gotten over their love affair with the automobile.  Perhaps some Parisians savor fond memories of cruising the Champs Elysee in the ’50s and ’60s, but they have managed to give back most urban space to people, bicycles and an efficient public transit system.  I loved strolling through Paris this summer without having to climb over cars at every corner, and exploring the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona by bike without seeing a single car. In Amsterdam cars were so outnumbered by bikes that they were real anomalies.  It’s really just a question of recognizing what cars are good at (occasional trips out of town, carrying little kids, the elderly or infirm, or heavy stuff) and what they are lousy at (getting around or parking in cities made for people).

Paris bike sharing

Photo by Sierra Michels Slettvet

Rome is slower to recognize these changes and many Romans still seem to illude themselves that their cars somehow impart them with freedom, status or sex appeal. But I’m sure it’s just a question of time before car-addicted Romans realize they are just pathetic, like aging businessmen cavorting with teenage starlets – no coincidence that Italy was ruled for years by one of those.

Photo by Michiel Jelijs

I often hear that Rome can never achieve the level of public transit of other European cities because of its archaeological strata.  I don’t buy this.  Solutions are available, many of which have already been put into practice in other major cities with positive results.  Traffic-calming, bike-sharing, BRT, light-rail, expanded car-free zones, the list goes on. A lot of the projects we do at Studio Rome revolve around transit issues, pulling the city back from the ledge of automotive self-destruction. It’s an exciting time to be working in Rome.

Traffic at Oxford Street by Worawit Suphamungmee

London’s congestion charge, Paris and Barcelona’s bike-sharing, Zurich’s concerted efforts to make driving more frustrating than walking – all of these could work fine in Rome but require a shift in priorities which the city has not yet had the political will to make. Rome has a limited traffic zone but access is treated as a privilege, not as a burden to be taxed. Paris and Barcelona and many other cities launched bike-sharing in parallel with a shift of roads over to bike and pedestrian space. The Zurich initiatives (described in an excellent article in the New York Times; I haven’t witnessed them myself) include a law giving pedestrians complete right of way on many city streets.

Instead, in Rome we still see traffic police trying to “facilitate” traffic while turning a blind-eye to blatant violations like parking on sidewalks and crosswalks. Case-in-point: they’ve started placing cops at the crosswalk in front of the Colosseum but instead of helping pedestrians they hold them back at the crosswalk while waving through cars for minutes on end.

As for bike-sharing in Rome, there hasn’t yet been a concerted effort to turn it into anything more than a public image ploy;  the bike-sharing stations have been empty for months now and discussions about how to jumpstart the project drag on.  Car-sharing seems to be faring slightly better but is still a drop in the bucket compared to what other cities, in the US as well as Europe, have achieved.  Making bike-sharing work is relatively simple, especially since it’s been tested successfully in so many cities: contract with private managers who make money from advertising revenue on bikes and bike-stations, don’t charge for the first 30 minutes, and make the system ubiquitous enough to take off. Of course it helps to provide safer, more pleasant routes for cyclists but I’m optimistic that it’s just a question of time before they will outnumber cars even in Rome.

For more info on Tom and his initiatives, visit his blogs, Studio Rome and Sustainable Rome, in particular, his post on “Car Free Sunday”.

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