Were Dante to write the Inferno today, I have no doubt that
commuting in Florence would be among the punishments in his nine circles of
Hell. Thus, I was rather nonplussed to read Mayor Matteo Renzi’s assertion that
his favorite means of getting around Florence is on foot, as well as his suggestion
that everyone ‘reclaim the habit of walking’ (see TF 153). Certainly a stroll
in the centro storico is pleasant enough-provided you avoid the newly
created traffic corridors where taxis and delivery trucks hurtle viciously over
the cobblestones like marauding Mongols. However, I feel that in concentrating
the bulk of its efforts in Florence’s historic center, Palazzo Vecchio is
ignoring, and perhaps even worsening, the grim reality of the ghastly traffic
problems that continue to rage in the viali and outlying neighborhoods.
I think it naïve to suggest, by inference, that residents such as the
elderly, the handicapped and mothers toting small children about should resign
themselves to walking impossible distances simply because it’s ostensibly more
pleasant to do so and viable alternatives do not exist.
And of course, not everyone has time for a leisurely stroll-in the
historic centre or elsewhere-between, say, dropping the kids at school and
needing to get to work by 9am. My husband works in Scandicci and must get there
from via Faentina, where we live: walking is clearly not a viable alternative.
Since Ataf is as reliable as weather, that’s not an option, and besides,
traffic is so ferocious he’d have to leave the house when the rooster crows. He
wisely eschews the stress of driving his own car (believing there are already
far too many on Florence’s roads), and bikes 20 kilometers a day, in all sorts
of weather, with only a partial bike lane along the route for his safety and
I’ve always cycled around town, too, preferring haphazard bike lanes and
dodging dangerous potholes and double-parked cars to gnashing my teeth in
frustration waiting for buses that rarely come on time, if at all. I am also a
committed pedestrian, though I must admit that the bulk of my experiences on
foot are hardly idyllic.
When my children were in a stroller, I was hard put to ever find a
crosswalk free of illegally and insensitively parked cars, and was forced to
struggle with curbs and less-safe crossing points. My forays downtown-even
ostensibly pleasant ones involving window-shopping-are rarely stress-free as
they require hearty vigilance regarding speeding taxis crisscrossing piazzas
and barreling down side streets.
My morning and afternoon walks to and from my children’s school are like
running the gauntlet: via Faentina resembles a traffic-choked Formula One
speedway. There are times when the air is so thick and acrid with exhaust fumes
I feel as if I’m on a burning ghat on the Ganges. And there are times when,
because of vehicles parked up on the sidewalks or even driving on them, walking
is a foolhardy option at best. Every day, experiences in my neighborhood remind
me that I, as a pedestrian, count for very little in this city and that traffic
is-and apparently always will be-my truculent master.
To me, it is obvious that electric cars, walking, bike-sharing, the
occasional blocco del traffico and the rearranging of traffic patterns
downtown are insufficient to improve the lives of the city’s beleaguered
residents like myself.
Florence is currently the most polluted city in Italy; the bottom
line is that there are too many vehicles on the road. We need truly viable
options to the one-person-per-car mode of commuting and incentives (or
disincentives) for getting people out of their vehicles and onto public
transport and bicycles. Clearly, a holistic approach is needed to solve these
complex problems: make people pay, perhaps-like in London-to circulate on the viali and enter the city center; provide tax breaks to employers who issue bus
passes to their employees; whip public transportation into shape; rigorously
enforce parking regulations, speed limits and traffic laws so that pedestrians
are safer and traffic flows more smoothly; and make the option to bicycle not
resemble a death wish.
A city with such serious traffic issues adversely affecting the quality
of life of its residents needs leaders who are willing to take greater strides
to make this a healthier, more livable place. Mincing steps, as seen thus far,
do little to alleviate our woes.