Saturation

Ah. It’s good to be away from Rome. It’s a city that isn’t high on my list of places to return to—something I don’t think I’ve said about a single place I’ve visited over the last six months, except perhaps that trailer park in middle-England that I camped at for all of about six hours.

Let me start by saying what we all know–Rome is like no other place. Events in Roman history shaped many aspects of civilization as we know it. My visit to the Italian capital helped me access the information I eagerly absorbed in high school history classes about the Roman empire (however, Wikipedia and a book about Rome greatly aided my fuzzy recollections of various events in Roman history). I wanted to like Rome. So, why did I find myself feeling disappointed as I walked around the city? Mainly, I was disappointed in my own imagination.

 

Nothing I saw walking through the Forum and Colosseum was able to help me pretend—just a few moments—that it wasn’t 2012. It wasn’t anything like visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal where I actually could imagine what Mayan civilization might have been like. In fact, part of me wished that my image of Rome could remain as it was in Mrs. Sauers history class. My inability to appreciate the historical and archaeological aspects of Rome was probably my fault—my concerns about modern Roman civilization were consuming my thoughts. Perhaps my “Homosapien habitat” glasses were on a little too firmly.

 

What are my “Homosapien habitat” glasses? They are my glasses that I wear when I try to understand why I like or dislike a city. I think about how the city makes me feel. How other people in the city move throughout the urban environment. How they interact with each other. Are there public spaces where I feel at ease? Is it easy to cross the street?

 

Rome scored low, in my opinion, in it’s treatment of humans. The design of the city prioritizes history and cars, not people.

 

I stayed at the end of the A Metro Line, at a place fairly removed from the urban core of the city, but still I woke up each morning to the sound of angry honks from cars stuck in traffic on the nearby street. People in Rome literally just lay on the horn for 10 to 20 seconds! I had to walk a short distance to get to the Metro station and there was no sidewalk in most places. The smell of diesel exhaust quickly filled my nostrils and cars along this stretch of road almost seemed to purposely accelerate as they drove past me in what felt like an expression of their dominance over the road. The Metro system was easy to use, but not my preferred way to move around a city. You miss seeing so much moving through the city underground.

 

I didn’t even bother looking into renting a bike in Rome because biking in Rome would be stupid. We all have a different threshold for risk. I made a friend in Copenhagen who lived in Paris recently and she didn’t ride a bike there because it felt too risky compared to Copenhagen. I, however, didn’t mind cycling in Paris (even though the bicycle infrastructure still needs some major improvements). There were a few parts of Paris that were difficult and stressful to navigate, but the number of other people—especially other woman—on bikes gave me a sense of security riding my bike there.

 

Rome was a different story. I felt absolutely no desire to get on a bicycle. I saw less than five people on bikes during the course of my visit. In Rome’s defense, there had been a very light snow the day before I arrived and this had thrown the entire city into a tizzy for several days. (The reaction to the snow was somewhat comical; many businesses were still closed ‘due to snow’ three days after the snowfall when there was almost no snow left on the ground and the sun was out.) So, perhaps the usual balance of the transportation system had been thrown off, but still, through my conversations and research I learned that cycling rates are incredibly low in Rome even when there isn’t snow on the ground. I’m really glad I don’t live in Rome.


A 28-year-old woman on a bicycle had recently been killed here.

Roman drivers are vicious. They seem to despise everyone else on the road—other drivers, cyclists, pedestrians—everyone. Crosswalks are a joke. I finally realized that I just had to step out into the road and then the cars would essentially drive around me. The drivers avoided making eye contact and playing dumb seemed to be a common tactic for getting the upper hand in a traffic negotiations with pedestrians. The, “oh, sorry, didn’t see you” attitude was prevalent with many drivers—even if you were standing right in front of them. I actually yelled, “stop trying to kill me” at a driver who just kept rolling towards me as I attempted to get across a crosswalk. The driver made some pissed-off, uniquely-Italian gesture at me and speed off. It’s no wonder why Rome has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in Europe. Spending so much of the week walking through a city—rather than cycling—really reinforced the idea that pedestrians are the softest users of the road. You don’t have speed on your side so it feels like you’re more exposed.

While at Copenhagenize, Mikael often talked about the “bull in the china shop.” Cars are the bull and anything outside of a car is the china shop. It is essential that people who live in cities stop ignoring the bull. Once you start to think about the urban environment in this context it is amazing how many ignoring the bull examples you see and hear about on a daily basis. For example, yesterday I read about a woman in Brooklyn who was speeding, ran a red light, crashed into an apartment building, and hit another car. This woman sounds like one serious bull to me. Here’s a report on the accident.

…her black Lincoln Navigator passed through a light and smashed into a Toyota Corolla heading west on Boerum Place, an onlooker said. After drifting about 50 feet, the SUV slammed into a tree before hitting the scaffolding at the condominium Boulevard East.

There was a huge rumble and it sounded like the whole scaffolding came down,” said Joe Stanfa, president of the condo’s board. “We’re just glad no pedestrians were hurt. There was smoke coming from the cars.”

Cops said the woman — who was pinned in her car and rescued with the Jaws of Life — would not be charged in the crash.

WHAT?! No charge?! So I can ram an SUV into other cars and buildings without getting any sort of charge? This is a classic example of police ignoring the bull.

Rome suffers tremendously from ignoring the bull. Walking in Rome is not only unpleasant because of the aggressive drivers, but the air pollution and noise from cars really detracts from your ability to enjoy the city. The air pollution was almost on par with Mexico City and Shanghai. I tried to walk as much as possible between destinations, but would sometimes give up and take the Metro, not because I got tired of walking, but because the air pollution would make me light-headed if I was near a busy street. Throughout the touristy parts of the city you’ll see these large air pollution abatement machines that are about the size of a food cart, humming away, sucking harmful air particulates in that would have otherwise gone into people’s lungs.

For some reason, seeing this machines reminded me of an article I read recently about Richard Jackson, the former head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control. Here’s a quote from the article:

Treatments could come in the form of pills, inhalers, and insulin shots, but real solutions had bigger implications. “More and more, I came to the conclusion that this is about how we build the world that we live in,” he says.

Last year, air safety limits in Rome were exceeded 56 times and the city experienced six consecutive days of emergency level air pollution. Rome has found that in many parts of the city with high levels of traffic congestion there are also dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide and PM10. These particles can bypass natural human filters—like the nose and throat—and get into your bloodstream, increasing your chances for various kinds of cancers. The air pollution abatement machines are band-aids. An unsustainable and and undignified solution to a problem that stems from an unwillingness to tackle the real problem—rampant overuse of the car and lack of investment in sustainable mobility options. What also upset me about these machines was that I didn’t see a single one in the poorer areas where tourists don’t typically go, but where air quality is just as bad.

Rome is trying, but it will be a slow process. The city has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world: about 76 cars per every 100 inhabitants. And with cars comes sprawl, making the situation even harder to reverse. I noticed that there were so many more luxury cars in Rome than Copenhagen—which seemed strange because Denmark is one of the wealthiest places in the world while Italy’s economy is struggling. Then I remembered that Danes pay a 200% tax on car purchases. Danish drivers pay for the negative externalities associated with driving upfront. The price of a car in Denmark reflects the true cost of driving. I haven’t talked very much about the environmental impacts of driving on this blog because I haven’t wanted to seem like a finger wagging environmentalist. In fact, I don’t even consider myself an environmentalist. I did take some economics classes in college though and I happen to believe that the cost of driving is vastly under-priced in most parts of the world. That’s good for car companies, but bad for just about everyone else in society. 

The title of this blog post is called ‘Saturation’ and you might be wondering what that’s all about. “Saturation” is a term that was used a lot by the car industry in the 1920s and 30s in the United States. Car sales weren’t so hot in American cities at that time. Americans didn’t need or want cars. In fact, a lot of Americans thought cars were intruders in cities and the high rate of child traffic fatalities further reinforced Americans dislike of cars for most of the 1920s. The market was saturated. The car industry called it a “saturation crisis” and began blaming city planners and traffic engineers for the flagging sales. Traffic engineers at that time were primarily focused on equity and the safety of all road users in cities. As a result, they kept streets narrow, speed limits low, and curb parking for cars very limited. In the early 1920s American cities didn’t have the money and didn’t feel responsible for building infrastructure for this highly inefficient form of transportation. A quote from the book Fighting Traffic:

Above all, engineers faulted automobiles for their prodigal use of space. “They occupy either while in motion or while parked, space all together out of proportion to their transportation efficiency,” one engineer wrote.

A St. Paul engineer found that an occupant of an automobile required 10.7 times as much space as a street car rider.

The car companies realized that to overcome the saturation crisis they needed a new breed of traffic engineers that would be willing to redesign city streets to accommodate cars and increase speed limits. The real turning point in the saturation crisis was in 1926 when Studebaker—a car company—donated funds to Harvard University to establish the Albert Russell Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research. Miller McClintock—a former Studebaker employee—became the director of the Bureau of Street Traffic Research and soon Harvard-educated traffic “experts” were hitting the streets advising cities all over the US to widen roads and accept that this was the “motor age.” The message was that resisting automobiles was old-fashioned and against progress.

Miller McClintock had a PhD from Harvard and had studied traffic control extensively. However, prior to being hired for Studebaker, McClintock wrote that, “widening streets would merely attract more vehicles to them, leaving traffic as congested as before. It seems desirable to give trolley cars the right of way under general conditions, and to place restrictions on motor vehicles in their relations with street cars.” He also published an article in the early 1920s describing automobiles as “the greatest public destroyer of human life.”

But, after working briefly for Studebaker and then being appointed director of the Studebaker-backed Bureau for Street Traffic Research, his tune changed dramatically in just a two year period. McClintock now thought that cities should “adjust their physical layout to the requirements of an automobile age. When those adjustments take place the motor car owner will profit greatly in increased speed and efficiency.”

Another quote from Fighting Traffic:

In Miller McClintock, the auto industry had, by 1927, an articulate and credible spokesman, the first traffic expert with a doctorate in his field. He was insulated from any obvious affiliation with industry by a Harvard byline. And at the industry’s expense, he was turning out more such experts each year.

So, there’s your history lesson for the day. McClintock probably didn’t realize what dramatic consequences his decision to back Studebakers’s agenda would have on the world, but he successfully solved the “saturation crisis.” Cities are filled with cars—but as McClintock aptly noted in the early 1920’s—cars aren’t moving people around cities very efficiently.

Visiting Rome provided some good time for reflection—about history and the mark we can make on history.

P.S. StreetFilms has some interesting videos about the history of cars in urban American. The series is called, Fixing the Great Mistake.



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2 thoughts on “Saturation

  1. “I finally realized that I just had to step out into the road and then the cars would essentially drive around me.”

    Exactly! If you hesitate you are toast. The drivers expect you to keep moving and they won’t hit you, only just miss your butt by 4 inches with their side mirror. If you slow down….

    And the center of Rome is too small to have useful public transit, everything is walkable. Though my American feet were beaten to a pulp by the cobblestones after a week or so.

    Great write-up!

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