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The Elephant in the Rome

October 3, 2009

I can’t help returning again and again to Rome’s cultural addiction to automobiles, it’s so obvious a problem but one to which so many Romans seem either oblivious or resigned.  We know that Italy has the highest per capita car ownership of all countries on the planet in a country that was built before the advent of the automobile.

Officials talk about how complicated Rome is but it’s often quite simple; there are cars where there shouldn’t be cars: in pedestrian zones, on sidewalks, on crosswalks, on scooter parking areas, at bus stops. And these cars are often far too big for a city like Rome.  And, worse,  they often belong to the very people who we’ve tasked with making and enforcing the laws!

On my daily bike or scooter commute from Monteverde to Circus Maximus I can usually count hundreds of cars parked in no parking zones (and fines are so rare as to make the practice cost-effective). I can’t help but ask the obvious questions, questions which seem incomprehensible in this culture so firmly enslaved to the car.

1.If all the cars parked in violation of city laws were to pay the fines (for laws already on the books) how much money would enter the city’s coffers? I estimate enough to cover some additional law enforcement personnel, improvements to public transportation and enough left over for bike paths. Not to mention that many people who drive now knowing they can park illegally without risk would consider other options. So why don’t the traffic cops do this?
2.What if parking in Rome cost what it does in other cities, like New York ($40/day average) instead of €4/day? Again, how much money could be used for essential public services and how many fewer cars would we see clogging the roads, consuming disappearing fuel and polluting the air?  The value of the 10 square meters of city land taken up by a parking space alone should be about €600/month or €20/day, so why does the city give it away for €1/hour?
3.Italy, a relatively small country, has more government vehicles–mostly top-of-the-line luxury cars—than the United States!   Really, where is it written that politicians and bureaucrats need to drive to work at taxpayers expense? Why doesn’t the government sell most of these and let the politicians walk or ride the bus?
4.Even when civil servants don’t have government-issued cars, they still expect to have parking provided at their place of work in the city. Why do public employees get to drive to work? Professors, doctors and architects and thousands of other professionals find their own solution to the daily commute, but the civil servants who we pay to keep our society together can’t. It’s common even to see cars branded with ATAC, the public transit agency, driving around town.  This city would work a lot better if its managers and law enforcers were out riding the buses and walking the streets.
5.One reason Rome’s municipal police rarely tickets to illegally parked cars even when they are standing right next to them is that they are too busy “directing traffic” at crowded intersections, duplicating the job of the traffic light with the justification that there are so many cars that would create gridlock without police intervention. What if they just let the gridlock happen and then fined the cars that entered the intersection without being able to reach the other side before the light changes? More money for the city, less incentive for drivers.
6. The last is my current pet peeve: why are there advertisements for cars on public buses? In fact, why isn’t it illegal to advertise automobiles period, given their clear threat to public health, role in environmental crises and in the destruction of our cities? Car ads on buses are like cigarette ads on ambulances.
7.Where is it legal to park a bicycle in Rome? You would think a form of transportation that produces no emissions, consumes no fuel and occupies minimum space would be encouraged, but I have only seen two bike racks in all of Rome.  It is illegal to lock a bike to any other object and I have actually had my bike confiscated by the police for being locked to a post outside a police station (while an unmarked car just around the corner blocking the sidewalk received not even a ticket). Why not make it legal to lock bikes to posts in the city, and then use some of the income from car parking and parking violations to install bike racks?

The list could go on, but the problem is quite simple. The real culprit is the incentives for private auto use and the disincentives for other forms of transportation. Bike sharing, car sharing are palliative measures, not intended to really replace cars but rather to “brand” the city administration as green.  Only when Romans get over this love affair with the car, and see these machines as out of place in the city as an elephant in a china shop, will Rome become a truly green city again.


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