Pleasure or pain?

Florence on two feet, two wheels, or four tires

Elizabeth Petrosian
December 15, 2011

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 comfort.


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.



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