Joel Klebanoff: Stuff & Nonsense

To worry is to be. To be is to worry.

Italian Roads and Sidewalks

View from Capri, Italy

View from Capri, Italy

I recently returned from a vacation in Italy that included stays in both Rome (aka Roma) and Naples (aka Napoli). As side trips from Naples, I also went to Capri (amazingly beautiful) and Pompeii (except for the new sections of town, amazingly ruined, but then that’s why you go). In addition, I also visited towns in Tuscany (aka Toscana) and Umbria (aka Umbria) from a base in a tiny hamlet near the beautiful, small, medieval town of Anghiari in Tuscany.

I had a great time and I highly recommend it as a tourist destination.

In what was probably a serious mistake that I, by some miracle, nonetheless managed to survive, my pre-trip planning did not include a study of Rome’s and Naples’ rules of the roads and sidewalks or, more to the point, the rules for crossing the street on foot. However, through careful observation, I think I worked out a few of those rules. 

Provided as a public service for anyone planning to travel Italy for the first time, the following is what I came up with. I haven’t verified that these are indeed the official regulations, but I think they are pretty close:

  • There are crosswalks. Unlike what you might expect from your experiences in pedestrian-friendly cities, the crosswalks mean only that if you use them drivers are expected to dodge around you, unless it is inconvenient to do so. However, don’t expect drivers to come to a stop. And they won’t even slow down if you are merely standing on the sidewalk patiently waiting for the traffic to halt for you. It’s not going to happen, so forget about it. Be brave and start walking. Because the traffic flow is incessant you’ll find that on hot, humid days the wind on your butt as cars and scooters (aka motorcycles, but generally smaller than big, honking Harleys) whoosh past is refreshing. 
     
  • You are free to cross the street where there is no crosswalk, and you are encouraged to do so, but it is then your obligation to dodge the cars and scooters. Think of it as a bloodsport and you’ll be fine. 
     
  • If you are fortunate enough to have a signalized crosswalk where you want to cross the street be advised that the pedestrian signals are suggestions only. Don’t expect turning cars and scooters—or the cars and scooters that magically enter in the intersection from another dimension—to give you the right of way unless you take it. Make sure your insurance is paid up. 
     
  • There are many other rules of the road that drivers are supposed to adhere to, but drivers are allowed to ignore any of them as long as they honk before they do so. 
     
  • The driver that honks first has the right of way.
     
  • If two drivers honk simultaneously the one with the loudest horn has the right of way.
     
  • If you want to change lanes or pass a vehicle and there is only the bare minimum of room required to fit your car, with no margin of error, GO! I think you can be thrown in jail for a few years if you leave any molecules of space open on the roads.
     
  • Scooter drivers are strictly forbidden to drive or park on the sidewalks unless they want to do so.
     
  • On some narrow streets there are metal poles that separate the even narrower “sidewalks” (they are level with the street) from the road. This is to protect the scooters that park on the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians onto the street where they can interact more freely with traffic.

If, despite knowing these rules you still feel nervous about crossing the street in Rome or Naples, here’s a tip: Wait for a local who is crossing at the same point. Position yourself so that he his between you and the oncoming cars. Then cross in synch with him. That way he’ll take most of the impact in the event of a collision. It’s a little difficult to perform this maneuver on two-way streets because some choreography is required to get on the other side of him when you pass the mid-point of the street, but with a little practice you can make it work for you.

By the way, I didn’t drive in Italy. I let another member of my party do that. I’m a nervous enough driver as it is. Recognizing that, I think that my travel health insurance provider would have considered the heart attack that would have inevitably occurred if I tried to navigate traffic to be the result of a pre-existing condition, which would have disqualified me for coverage.

As a side note, I think some special laws of physics are required to explain why there are so few bunged up cars on the roads of Rome and Naples. I haven’t yet worked out those laws are but I’ll let you know if I do.

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6 Comments

  1. Well done, Joel. I’ll remember these tips if I ever make it to Italy. When I was a kid, I learned that you weren’t supposed to ride a bike on the sidewalk, but in Atlanta, bicyclists are constantly using it. They scare me to death sometimes, coming up behind me, and then yelling “To your left!” Glad you had a fun trip.

    • You’re not supposed to ride a bike on the sidewalk here in Toronto either. Most people honor that, but a few don’t. (Bikes under a certain diameter, I forget what, are exempted so kids are allowed to ride on the sidewalk.) It’s rarely a problem.

      I’ve been in Amsterdam a few times in my life. Beautiful city, but bicycles have the priority there and you are expected to watch out for them, not the other way around. But they do have a lot of separated bike lanes and they tend not to ride on sidewalks there.

  2. Ciao Joel, benvenuto alle strade d’Italia. You really need to be Italian to work it all out on those roads mate and thank God you didn’t drive otherwise I’d be hearing about you on the BBC news, no joke. You had the perfect answer though, just walk with the locals and let it be.

    Oh how I wish I was in Italy right now eating that lovely food and taking a little wine with my pasta several times a day. Hope you had a brilliant holiday, putting aside the heart stopping moments :)

    • I can say hello, good evening, good night, yes, no, please, thank you and you’re welcome in Italian. None of those helped me much with the streets.

      Hear about me on the BBC news? Wow, does BBC report on calamities that befall citizens of one of the Queen’s colonies?

      It was a great holiday. Lots of amazing wine, pasta and other foods. Oh, and the sights were kinda cool too.

      The traffic was a little nerve-racking but I’ve always said I don’t get nearly enough excitement in my life.

  3. I second your comments. I went to Rome on a business trip and I didn’t make any attempt to drive and remember nearly dying more than once as a pedestrian. Even as a passenger in the taxi going to and from the airport, I was scared out of my gourd.

    I’ve heard Naples is worse.

    • If there is any difference between traffic in Rome and Naples it was too marginal for me to notice.

      I had some cab rides in both cities. How taxi drivers there can do their jobs for more than two days without becoming suicidal is beyond me.

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