All Roads Lead From Rome - Part II

I owe all of ya’ll a belated Merry Christmas and very best wishes for a Happy New Year. This week, part two of my very scattered, and random thoughts from a recent trip to Rome. It became immediately apparent that I was not capable of crafting a comprehensive review of Roman streets in a thousands words. I know I'm missing some major points and observations, but the weekly deadline waits for no man. Time's up, pencils down...

Via del Corso on a Saturday night.
Time is a funny thing. I’ve been back for less than two weeks, but with Christmas festivities sandwiched in between, it feels like months since we were in the Eternal City. This week’s post is about roads, but it’s also about time. Their incremental development over millennia has created a street system that stands in stark contrast to what we experience. This portion of their public realm is clearly a societal institution. People love the streets and piazzas, and they are integral parts of how life is lived. At first glance, their street system seems disorganized, haphazard and substandard by our measure.  Closer investigation, however, reveals that their system is more sophisticated and urbane than anything we have to offer.

Via Frattina
The obvious remark is that Roman streets are shared spaces. Yes, there are places that shade either more car or pedestrian, but there is a broad gradient in betwixt. Even along the same street, the character changes and fluctuates (Via del Corso being an excellent example). Over here when we talk streets, we talk cars- then everything else. Over there, cars abound, but they are only part of the larger conversation (if not an afterthought).

Nova Via. A rather old street.
Rome was founded around 750 BC- that’s about three thousand years ago in round numbers. As a place that eventually became the greatest city in human history, tremendous development pressure was put on every square inch of space in the urban area. This led to a naturally integrated system of streets of and piazzas that was human in scale, and that addressed transportation needs while deferring to the greater activities of life in the city. When the car made its appearance, it was subjugated to the weigh of civic form. The intersection of history and new technology created a distinctive set of circumstances.

Via dei Condotti from Piazza di Spagna
For 97% of their existence, the primary mode of transportation has been the shoe. Obviously, the streets and piazzas of antiquity weren’t dimensioned with automobiles in mind. To utilize new technologies they had find ways to shoehorn them in to the existing fabric. An example of that is the proliferation of one-way streets. In the states, one-way streets are (thankfully) coming under scrutiny, but they work in Rome because that is their only option (and ain’t nobody speeding down a crooked eight-foot wide cobblestone path anyway).

Over here, we love spatial segregation. Streets are streets, plazas are plazas, parks are parks, and parking lots are parking lots. People in one place, trees in one place, bikes in one place, and cars in another. None shall mingle. Over there, streets and piazzas are funky combinations of people, bikes, cars, architecture, food and open space. Often, a piazza is simply a slightly widened portion of a street in front of a building. This is as it should be. The life of the city, of the buildings, and of the open spaces where people live, work and play is given precedence over how people move from activity to activity. This system can best be described as civilized.

The guy with the baby stroller would be arrested in America.
The contrast in systems goes beyond physical form, it extends to operation as well. The American system is like an official game of basketball, while the Roman system is more like a pick-up game. Over here, there are explicit rules for everything. “The game” is closely officiated, score, stats and fouls are kept, and the players all abide within that framework. Over there, rules definitely exist, but there is informality in how they are applied, and the players often take liberties with their interpretation of the rules.

Take, for instance, that act of street crossing. If you want to cross Market Street, you find an intersection and wait for a light. From there, simple rules apply to both pedestrian and driver. In Rome, on several streets with a similar sections (it’s tough to say as individual lanes aren’t generally marked, only the centerlines), signalized intersections don’t always exist, and crossings are made at crosswalks. To cross, you take your life in your hands decide when to cross, and essentially walk into oncoming traffic. As if by magic, the oncoming cars stop, slow or swerve to allow pedestrians to pass. This is (literally) a foreign concept to an American, but one that seems to work fine. In fact, it works better than fine. Their system is respectful of pedestrians and puts people and cars on more or less equal footing.  Our system treats pedestrians as nuisances to be grudgingly dealt with during the task of moving cars.

The Roman public realm is driven by civic agreement. In fact, they fulfill the promise of the concept- it is truly shared space. We, on the other hand, are selfish, no matter which mode we choose. Our transportation system is designed for a group of spoiled young children who can’t play together without having a referee (police) or chaperone (lawyer) supervising the action. They drive like maniacs, yet are patient and respectful of pedestrians. Their pedestrians are bold and entitled, yet make concessions for cars, trucks and transit. While at first glance their system is chaotic and disorderly, it is at its core sophisticated and civilized. Our system is segregated, and therefore adversarial. So, while we have a long way to go, the good news is that we have another 2,800 years to work on it.

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