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OPINION: Can Rome’s new mayor solve the capital’s traffic woes?

Rome's traffic and transport issues are longstanding and legendary, but the new mayor says he'll improve things. Could he succeed, and what's really needed? Rome resident Silvia Marchetti explains.

Cars drive past Rome's Piazza Venezia.
Heavy traffic is a fact of life for Rome's residents. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

When in Rome, how often have you hopelessly searched for a parking space and in the end just given up? I once drove all the way to Pyramide from Tiburtina for an evening cocktail with friends, and then after an hour going around in circles I drove back home, furious, without even stepping out of my car because I couldn’t find a single spot to park it. I felt like a fool. 

Drivers in the Eternal City are stuck for hours in traffic jams on the Lungotevere and often cross the Tiber River more than thrice before finding a tiny parking spot, usually just as the former occupant drives away. And when it rains, it gets all the more hellish. 

Rome is not a metropolis; its historical center is tiny, with narrow roads and alleys crammed with vehicles of all sorts. Its suburbs are also getting very crowded. 

A lack of sustainable mobility is a long-standing problem: public transport is poor and not punctual, while tube trains and parking lots are too few. 

READ ALSO: Rome ranked ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Politicians have always attempted to solve the problem, but failed. Now Rome’s newly-appointed mayor Roberto Gualtieri is pledging a solution which might help in improving the outlook – but not in solving it all together.

Gualtieri plans to scrap many of Rome’s free parking spaces and increase fees to discourage car use and incentivize people to take public transport. I think parking fees should be raised to €5 per hour.

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

His local council has yet to fully become operative, but Gualtieri says his team has a hundred decrees ready to be approved to boost buses, trams and subways. In the first three months of his mandate, improving the capital’s mobility will be among his top priorities.

A special task force will be set up to discuss the challenges along with urban transport operators and taxi drivers. Gualtieri also plans to increase bike lanes and make them safer. 

OPINION:

The truth is, I think Rome will always have a problem with traffic and urban transport, at least until air mobility substitutes ground mobility – which might not be such a distant prospect, if planned ‘air taxis’ become a reality.

Rome’s wonderful past can in fact often be a burden. The millennia-old city is built upon layers of archaeological sites dating back to different periods, and ruins are everywhere – mainly underground. 

It often happens that, whenever workers start digging to build a car park or a new subway, they accidentally unearth parts of an unknown treasure such as an ancient Roman tomb or temple. 

By law the works must freeze and the authorities step in to analyze and study the findings. The area stays cordoned off for months, if not years.

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

One way to partly bypass the ‘archaeological barrier’ is to build parking spaces outside of the historical center, possibly within reach of the GRA (Grande Raccordo Anulare. Rome’s ring road) which must be connected to the city via electric buses, trams and faster, ‘green’ trains. 

All this obviously requires massive investment, but the post-pandemic recovery fund is an opportunity which must be fully exploited. 

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Station hubs in strategic areas should also be reinforced with more connections and wider parking areas. It is unacceptable that, for instance, the railway from Piazzale Flaminio to Viterbo is still partly the same one built in the early 1900’s, with one single track allowing the passage of just one train at a time. Or that the train and bus station of Saxa Rubra, connecting the city with its northern suburbs and villages, is crammed with cars parked everywhere. 

Commuters coming from Rome’s outskirts face the greatest trouble. Residents need fast and reliable transport to take them to work on time but visitors would also be impressed if they found not only a mesmerizing city, but an efficient one too. 

It’s a matter of improving quality of life. If a Roman spends roughly two to three hours inside his car, this isn’t only going to impact his physical and mental health, but it also takes a toll on labor productivity levels.

Each time I exit the ring road and get stuck in the usual, daily traffic I long for efficient local transportation. I believe that if trains, subways and buses were more frequent, cleaner and on time and the network extended, that citizens would be more willing to leave their cars at home and take urban transport. Provided, of course, that they can also park their cars at the station in a safe area. 

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Without new wide parking spots I’m afraid cars will remain the main means of transportation among lazy Romans.

Surveys show that Rome is the European city with the highest use of private vehicles: 65 percent versus 26 percent in Paris and 38 percent in Berlin.

One could argue that an ancient Roman site could still pop out during the construction of a parking lot in the city outskirts, which is very likely. That is why it would be helpful to map the city’s potential archaeological areas yet to be unearthed with the help of historians and archaeologists. Once the ‘clear’ spaces have been identified then new subways, train stations and car parks can be more easily planned.

The global reputation of a city as important and unique as Rome cannot be limited to the wonders of the past. Rome must strive to build innovative and eco-conscious transport for the future.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

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I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

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But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

READ ALSO: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.

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