Bestselling book on Rome Italy
Bestselling book on Rome Italy



Letters from Italy
Venice: In Grand Style
Italian Eating Habits
Pope John Paul II
Modern Art in Rome
Parking in Rome
Getting around Rome
Christmas in Rome

Getting Around in Rome
“Rome by bus, tram, metro, foot or car?”

Ciao Amici,

I finally did it. I broke down -- the pressure was too great. All my Roman friends are now saying, "Sei diventato romano! You have become a true Roman." But I will get into that later.

It takes years of living in this city to realize how truly bizarre it is to try to move from one part of Rome to another. How ironic. Here is a city that is if nothing else an outdoor museum, where traversing the streets introduces you to one spectacular sight after another, and on most days you can't comfortably move around. The cynical romani tell me that transport is just like anything else -- in the hands of corrupt officials and cartels that prevent real progress -- but I think the problem goes deeper than that, back all the way to the culture of the city and the way it has changed over the past ten or fifteen years. It used to be that Romans rarely left their neighborhoods. Everything was contained within a person's "ten square meters, " an old city joke. But in fact, this is usually the case. A person living in Testaccio on the south central side of the city has absolutely no reason to visit the Parioli on the north central side, and rarely does. The respective cultures of the two zones are so different that one would be hard pressed to see how they are in fact the same city. Rome, moreover, has no "midtown," no real central commercial district that is inarguably the place to shop. The centro storico, the historical center, is but one neighborhood among many, more interesting, at least to foreigners, but also a place where locals live and work and shop. Thus, until recently, there was little need on the part of the Romans to leave their own neighborhoods, and so public transport was not a civic priority.

Add to this the difficulty of implementing mass transit even if there were the will and the means. There are two existing subways lines, which form an X across the city, but they are mainly designed to bring people into the center from the outskirts and leave them there. They don't really help much once you have arrived in the city. And by this time, getting around on the surface is slow and undependable. The means are over-crowded at most times of the day and not a very pleasant experience. When you think about the great metropoli of the Western World - London, Paris, New York -- they are all dependent on rapid transit underground. Rome would like to be as well, but it is just impossible to navigate. Dig anywhere and you come across a precious ruin. (See February letter) So digging another subway line is out of the question. There are too many precious remains under the earth to allow work to proceed. There's always the surface, and in fact there are currently several ways to move around -- on foot, in a taxi, by car or motorino or on buses and trams. Walking is a by far the best way to see the city, which is small enough to make this alternative feasible. But what about the times when you are rushed for time, when it is pouring rain, or when you have to leave the cozy confines of the centro storico and be in a neighborhood just outside the center. Cabs are always the luxury item -- when you can find them. Rome is not New York. Cabs do not "cruise." You either have to go to the occasional taxi stand, or call one which immediately adds about $3 to the fare. And when it's raining, everyone wants a cab and so it is often impossible to get one. All agree that there are too few taxis in the city -- except the cabbies who say that the problem of unavailability is terrible traffic. It's just another example of living in Italy. The buck never stops here, or there, or anywhere. It just goes round and round. Recently, on a day of rain and a not infrequent public transit strike, the line at the Termini train station for a cab was a thousand people, and the wait was one hour. Imagine arriving in a great city like Rome for the first time and there is no way to leave the station.

That leaves buses -- when they are running. Rome in fact has tons of bus lines, going every which way and connecting neighborhoods, subway lines and historical sites. On paper they run every five or ten minutes and are a wonderful way to get around and see the splendors of the city at the same time. On paper. The reality is a nightmare. They are inconsistent, undependable, hot, crowded, and, since they must go on the surface, subject to the same slow pace as everyone else. Since you buy a ticket beforehand and then stamp it on the bus, and since there are inspectors but in my four years here I've only encountered three of them, people quite frankly buy a ticket, and stamp it only if they see an inspector. The buses are therefore contain 40% more than the official number of riders, often immigrants and refugees who have been admitted into the country without much difficulty. Getting on or off a bus is often almost impossible, and so we are back to foot or taxi -- or we don't go at all. Imagine a city where appointments are frequently canceled because of the weather. Think what would happen if it snowed here. People would take the winter off. Negotiations are on the way to prevent any public transit strike during the year 2000. We're keeping our fingers crossed. There are, to be sure, hopeful signs. A new, spanking clean bus began operation the other day by a private company. We now have two new lines, the J2 and J5. To give you an idea of how revolutionary this concept is in Italy, a private company managing a public service, they named it with one of the letters that doesn't even exist in the Italian language, just so that people would realize how unthinkable the service really is. Now you can pay just a little bit more--about $1 and be treated to many of the city's most impressive monuments in a single fare.

The answer to the transport conundrum is light rail, which does exist but not nearly in the proportions necessary to make a difference. The 30 tram stops near our house and goes to another part of the city, but the route is so indirect that a 15 minute cab ride without traffic takes almost an hour on the tram. The 8 tram goes to Largo Argentina in the center and then to an outlying area on the way, passing through Trastevere, but it is often so crowded the moment you step on that you feel as if the air around you has been stolen. Just recently I endured a situation that illustrates the impossibility of "getting around." As I wrote about in Chapter 3 of As the Romans Do, Meandering through the Heart of History, I left left my son's music lesson in the center one evening and was on the way home. Julian wasn't feeling well as I considered all the options. A 64 bus came by, arguably the worst in the city on the comfort scale. It was packed so tightly that even a crowd of gypsies couldn't get on, depriving themselves of a golden opportunity to do their "thing" -- be unpleasant and thieving. I pulled Julian away from the stop and said I wanted to walk to the next one. Another 64 came by, just as crowded as the first, and the fifteen gypsies got off. Just what I needed. I told Julian I wanted to walk a little further to the 8 tram, which we did, as my son kept reminding me that he didn't feel well. The boarding platform was packed. Fresh air was a better alternative. Another few blocks and we could take the 715, which goes right to our house and is not usually crowded. It came and went seconds before we reached the stop. By this time my son was clamoring for a taxi. Could you blame him? None came. We were not at a stand, and the occasional cruising taxi was not to be seen. Finally another 715 arrived and we completed the hour ride home, a trip that should have taken twenty minutes.

Light rail -- trams, trains, whatever -- is the answer. They would go on their own lanes, regardless of traffic and connect to other public means. If they ran frequently, were clean and efficient (let's not hold our breath) and actually had someone to check your valid ticket before you climbed aboard, leaving the honor system to another age when people were generally more honest, average Romans would actually be tempted to take them, leaving their cars at home and freeing up the city from noise, pollution, and the inability to move around. Trams on ten of the city's widest boulevards -- Via del Tritone, Via Nazionale, Via dei Fori Imperiale, Via della Conciliazione, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via del Teatro DI Marcello, etc. They would be Rome's "subway," a fast, inexpensive way to get from one place to another and watch history go by as you do so. They are so obviously the answer that it is anyone's guess as to when they will be built. I'm betting in the next millennium -- the year 3000. By that time everyone will have agreed that they represent the solution but the problem will have been a thousand years old and people will have long since stopped having to physically transport themselves, and someone will have to remind the city that public transport makes no sense when people can dematerialize and then re-materialize in another place at will. Well, better late than never.

In the meantime, I broke down and bought a car from neighbors who live in our palazzo-- a 1978 Renault. Our friends keep ooing and aahing when they hear about this cool car -- for some it was the first car they ever had. If you buy a new car in Rome you are considered out of your mind. It will be ruined or stolen, so why not get something you won't care about if it gets dented, or better yet, buy something nobody would steal. Save your money for eating and dressing well, which are much more important to the romani anyway. I bought this car for $250. It'll have to be junked at the end of this year (or next year, depending upon whether the Italians can win the latest negotiations with the EU to extend the deadline when the new continental gasoline cleanliness standards go into effect). But by now I am Roman. I'll deal with it when the time comes.

Alan Epstein

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