Cars, Shared Streets, and Lovable Cities

Cars in the Coppede Quarter

Cars in the Coppede Quarter

I know I’m in Rome to think (and learn) about architecture and preservation (past and future), but recently my thoughts turned to cars.

There’s a connection here.  Trust me.

If you need a car in Rome, you can find one.  We’ve taken taxis on several occasions, and from those rides I can attest that there are no shortages of cars on the street.  But the interesting thing – from my perspective – is how the cars and their drivers interact with others who share the street: pedestrians (of which there are many), cyclists, motorcycle riders, street vendors, buskers, and patrons at outdoor cafe tables.

Rome’s transportation patterns are somewhere between the very rational (and orderly) Copenhagen model, and the free-for-all that is New Delhi. Probably a little closer to Delhi, truth be told. Traveling in Rome is a dance, and cars are not privileged in the way they are in the United States.  (We have changed our cities and planned our suburbs in a way that deifies cars, instead of supports people.) While there are major thoroughfares in Rome where speeds can reach – or exceed – American norms, the neighborhoods we have explored – Trestavere, Centro Storico, Vatican City, Monteverde (“our” neighborhood), Testaccio – are made up of small, often winding, streets.  Of course, these neighborhoods include some of the world’s most famous landmarks and plenty of everyday (for Rome) buildings stretching over several centuries to the present day. Frommers notes that “Rome has the most compact and walkable city center in Europe.”

I began thinking about the walkability of Rome and the dance between all the players on these shared streets as I reviewed notes from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City and read two recent blog posts on the subject of cars, parking, and walkability in the U.S.

The first was Why I Love Trader Joe’s Parking Lots.  (There’s a title to get your attention!)  I’ll let the writer – Rachel Quednau – take it from here:

“These shoppers (who complain about the parking lot sizes) are frustrated because when they arrive at Trader Joe’s they can’t find parking within 5 seconds, like they can at most other grocery stores. They blame Trader Joe’s for not providing them with “sufficient” parking. But, as we have shown year after year in our #BlackFridayParking campaign, the opposite is actually true. What we are used to is massively excessive parking. What Trader Joe’s provides is actually “sufficient” parking–sufficient for a quick turnover between spots and for maximum use of limited space….

I’m guessing most of the complainers didn’t turn around and leave the store when they found the parking lot full. Rather, they waited a minute or two, saw an open spot and took it. What’s a better use of time and money? A lot big enough that it could hypothetically fit the most people that would ever want to come there? Or a lot that is full more often than not, where space is maximized and customers might have to wait a couple minutes for their turn? What benefits the business and the community more?”

Cars in Rome

A typical shared street in Trastevere

Exactly.  Cars in Rome (which are much smaller than our behemoths in the U.S.) find parking options we couldn’t imagine. Cars park sideways here! But it all works as part of the dance.

This point was made even more directly with the second post I read, which also has a provocative title:  Mothers Against Drunk Driving Should Also Be Against ZoningOriginally posted on the Urban3 blog (and reposted on the Strong Towns blog), writer Joshua McCarthy begins by noting that Americans may have more of a driving problem than a drinking problem. He continues:

I have never understood how a zoning code could, in good faith, permit a drinking establishment that could only possibly be reached by car. In doing so, are we not creating a scenario in which people have no option but to drive to a place where they then become unable to safely drive home?

McCarthy shows the two ends of the spectrum:  a neighborhood bar located in a community near homes and businesses where you have options to walk, get a drink, and walk or bus home (or back to the office) as opposed to a Buffalo Wild Wings establishment surrounded by a few acres of parking on a major thoroughfare.

Rome has more than a few drinking establishments.  People come to Italy for the food and wine.  But both the tourists and locals who fill those establishments often walk or take buses, trains, or taxis. You have options!  What our mid-20th century planning mindset has created in the U.S. is the lack of options and – I would add – the lack of community.  (But that’s another post.)

Tonight, on a glorious spring day here in Rome, Candice and I will walk through several neighborhoods – sharing the street all along the way – to find a restaurant (where at least I will have a glass of wine) before heading to the Easter Vigil service at St. Paul’s Within the Walls.  Because it ends late, we’ll catch a taxi home, but we could walk or take the bus. We’ll celebrate the everyday and the eternal all along the way in a “continuous” city that reminds us that life didn’t begin – and doesn’t end – with our lives and our generation.

Those types of experiences are not as frequent in the United States, as we’ve spent 70+ years creating places that are hard to live in, much less love. G.K. Chesterton once noted that, “The city of Rome did not become loved because it was great but, rather, it became great because it was loved.”

And to think that all of this began as I was looking at cars.

More to come…

DJB

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