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World: A Moment for Pedestrians

3 minute read

The Eternal City has always had an eternal problem: traffic. In Julius Caesar’s day it was chariots and wagons jammed axle-to-axle on the cobblestones. Today it is Fiats and Alfa-Romeos bumper-to-bumper in a jam that reaches maximum autosclerosis in Rome’s downtown arteries during the holiday shopping season. Caesar solved the problem in his day by imperial edict, banning carts, wagons, coaches and elephants during daylight hours. Last week Rome was trying the same thing on a smaller scale—and ruefully discovering banning Fiats by fiat to be hardly a Caesarian triumph.

Roman Traffic Commissioner Antonio Pala’s plan was simple enough: prohibit all private cars from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. from the 35-block, 25-acre heart of the city’s shopping center (see map). Shoppers would thus have an “isola pedonale”—a pedestrian island—all to themselves during peak hours save for buses and taxis. All seemed bellissimo when the plan went into effect: children calmly played soccer at the foot of the Spanish steps, where autos once hurtled blithely by; grown-ups ambled wonderingly down the center of the fashionable Via Condotti, window-shopping at their casual ease.

Lights Out. Trouble was, complained the island’s merchants, the strollers were window-shopping and little else. “Sales have dropped 50%,” wailed the owner of two woolens shops. “This is not an island, it’s a desert,” snarled a tobacconist. “They’re trying to make a graveyard,” complained Restaurateur Otello Caporicci, “out of the historical center of Rome.” The aggrieved merchants banded together, turned out the lights in their shopwindows in protest. Some restaurants even served food by candlelight. Meanwhile, outside the island, traffic piled up on the perimeter in an angry, tooting wall of vehicles, often preventing even buses and taxis from getting into the island, where they belonged.

After the first frantic days, matters began to improve; the mammoth jam on the island’s edge was eased as drivers learned to give the whole area a wide berth during critical hours. And at the better shops, plenty of wealthy clients were still showing up by cab (sniffed Gucci’s sales manager: “A woman who wants a Gucci bag is not going to settle for something at her neighborhood store.”). But by then, the uproar from the small shopkeepers was too loud to go unnoticed at city hall. Caving in, Traffic Commissioner Pala first reopened almost half the isola to private cars, put part of the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square) to use as a car park. Two days later he went further, agreeing to let the rest of the island sink under the sea of protest, and putting pedestrians back in their place—hugging the sidewalks for dear life.

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