4 Jun 2013

Organised chaos - The cars and roads of Rome

I've just returned from a short trip to Rome and found the car culture and the way they treat cars and driving fascinating.

Most Rome roads are cobbled and are mercifully free from roadworks, which London seems to perpetually suffer from.  Rome's roads are also free from cameras, hatched junctions, yellow lines, red routes, bus stops and infernally complicated roundabouts and junctions.  Traffic lights are only put in when absolutely necessary and, from what I could see, drivers can park almost anywhere.

It's a chaotic system that requires an enormous amount of skill and common sense to negotiate.  Pedestrians have to be on high alert all the time because pedestrian crossings seem only to be advisory - cars will routinely brush past you if you don't get a move on.

Lane discipline seems to be non-existent.  We took a few taxis and our drivers just drove where they wanted and often straddled lanes.  Our car from Rome to the airport overtook slower vehicles at 160kph, with two wheels in the central reservation - inches from the concrete barrier in the middle of the road.

Despite all this chaos Rome's road system seems to work.  I loved the libertarian attitude.  Most cars are small - I've never seen so many Smarts and Toyota IQs - because they can be parked in tiny spaces and often at right angles to the pavement.

Parking in Rome is an art all by itself and requires lots of touching and bumping.  If you own a nice car then you have to understand it will get dented.  I witnessed lots of incidents where cars were moved a few inches whilst someone tried to wriggle into or out of a parking space that most Brits would dismiss as being far too small.  I'd say 90% of all Roman cars are dented or scratched.

Mercedes are all over the place but almost all are taxis or private hire cars.  Small SUVs, particularly Audi Q3s and BMW X3s exist in small quantities.  The only supercars I saw were Maserati GranTurismos which the Italians seem to prefer in dark grey.  Most cars are small but there are relatively few old bangers.  Italian cars do exist but there aren't as many as you might imagine.  There weren't many Fiat 500s but there were quite a few incredibly ugly Lancia Ypsilons.

Roman police cars are all Alfa Romeo 159s and the police who occupy them seem more interested in wearing sunglasses and looking cool than doing much else.

London and other cities could learn a huge amount by observing how the organised chaos of Rome works.  Drivers just get on with it without the need for nannying, interventionist traffic regulation and system.  And you know what, I hardly saw any traffic jams.  The traffic just flows because there are very few hindrances to movement.


Note - George Phillips wrote of his own Roman experience on his own blog back in April.  Have a read here