Even Ben Hur Would Grit His Teeth in Rome's Traffic

ROADS TO NOWHERE

Once, all roads led to Rome. Today, all of Rome's roads get you nowhere fast.

Construction teams are tearing up streets and sidewalks all over downtown Rome, laying fiber-optic cables, working on water and electricity lines, and beginning other urban projects, such as building a new streetcar line and restoring piazzas.

As a consequence, drivers are often forced to inch along the Eternal City's narrow streets.

The city administration, under Green Party Mayor Francesco Rutelli, is criticized for the bottlenecks.

"This work is needed, but it is badly planned," says Luca Battaglini, a money manager at the IMI investment bank.

Even before the burst of construction, Mr. Battaglini had given up fighting traffic in favor of taking the subway to work.

"When I drive around, it's after work, when there's a lot less traffic," he says.

Ulisse Guardagni, a retired physician, also avoids the rush hour. Just the other day Dr. Guardagni left at 6:30 a.m. to drive the three miles from his house to the Gemelli General Hospital.

If he had left even as late as 7 a.m., the trip would have taken him two hours, he claims.

"In the same amount of time," he points out, "I could go to Naples," which is 120 miles south of Rome.

Too many drivers

But as far as the construction goes, he is harsher on his fellow Romans than he is on Mr. Rutelli and the city's government.

"It's an added problem that creates greater inconvenience. But it's not the main problem," he says. "The main problem is that there are too many of us, and we all want to get around by car."

This is, in fact, the position of the city administration.

Since Rutelli went into office in December 1993, he has reopened local railroad stations around the city and restricted day-time traffic in the historic center to approved vehicles (buses, taxis, delivery vans, residents' cars, and so on).

The mayor has also beefed up the presence of traffic cops to keep out those drivers who would try to sneak into forbidden areas.

The Rutelli administration wins a cautious thumbs up from Legambiente, an Italian environmental group.

"The direction the administration is going in is the right one, in our opinion," says Legambiente spokesman Roberto Della Seta, "but it's going too slowly."

Finding a parking space is even more of a hassle than the traffic itself.

In some parts of Rome, on-street parking is still free, if drivers can find a space.

Parking woes

But when there are no free spaces to be found, drivers often double-park, which leads to all-day-long honking of horns by drivers who are either trapped in their legal space or blocked in the traffic lane by a double-parked car.

To make matters worse, at night and sometimes even in broad daylight, free-lance "parking-lot attendants" patrol some of the city's most valuable spots and ask drivers for a few thousand lire to be able to park there.

Everyone knows this is illegal, but who wants to risk coming back to find the car scratched up or its tires slashed?

There are few underground parking garages for the same reason the city has a modest subway system in comparison with other metropolises: Every time you start digging in Rome you could run into some yet-unknown archaeological treasure. Consequently, it's almost impossible to get approval to excavate.

To try to improve the traffic and parking problems in one fell swoop, the city is gradually introducing paid parking. There are no parking meters at present. Instead, inside your windshield you display something known here, ironically, by the English word "ticket." The ticket is good for one or more hours of parking, at $1.30 an hour.

If you get caught cheating, the real ticket is $35.

Gas tax to the max

One goal is to drive more people to public transportation. Already, reports a satisfied Mr. Della Seta, double parking has begun to disappear.

If a closed city center, construction work at practically every corner, and limited parking space weren't enough, there's always the cost of gas: "very expensive," in Battaglini's words; "the world's most expensive," suggests Guardagni.

Extra-leaded gas, which is the most-sold gasoline in Italy, costs $5.25 a gallon in central Rome. Since many Italians dodge taxes with the same finesse with which they dodge each other in traffic, the government has long retaliated by squeezing them dry at the gas pump.

Fully 75 percent of the price of gas goes to taxes.

Guardagni hopes Roman drivers will start using their automobiles less, but realizes changing the mentality will not be easy.

"I went to the university by bus. I don't know why my son should go by car," he says. "Ours was a different culture. Unfortunately, from my point of view, there's been a degeneration."

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