If any city in the world has a good excuse for not having a modern-day transportation system, it’s Rome.
The Eternal City is 2,767 years old, at least by some counts. Winding streets and cobblestone paths are not exactly the makings of good bike infrastructure or rapid-transit lines. And Rome is, of course, the homeland of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, not usually associated with sedate driving.
And yet, Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, insists that his city will soon be one of the best cities in the world for sustainable public transportation. Marino, who was elected last year, paid a visit to Boston this week to share some of his thoughts on strategies for grappling with transportation issues plaguing major cities and to offer some pointers for the Hub.
“I’m trying to demonstrate that biking in Rome is possible. In my personal experience, it gives me the opportunity to see some details that I never would have seen from a car,” Marino said at a talk sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects. “I can hear the voice of my town — and sometimes, somebody protesting the potholes.”
During his hour-long talk, Marino pointed out that Rome has a long way to go before becoming a more sustainable transportation city. The city has about 980 cars per 1,000 adults, he said, versus 350 and 415 cars in London and Paris, respectively. Additionally, the average Roman resident uses his or her car for about 5 kilometers of travel per day.
“You can imagine a huge box weighing 1 ton, just to move a 70 kilogram or 80 kilogram person, instead of a sustainable form of transportation — and this, for only an average of 5 kilometers per day,” Marino said.
It’s only been about a year since Marino’s ascent to office. (Random fact: He used to be a transplant surgeon in Pittsburgh before deciding to return to his native Italy to pursue politics.) In that short period, Marino has made some controversial transportation decisions: He rebooted the city’s bike-share initiative, which had been plagued by theft and vandalism. He wants to help commuters pay bus and subway fares with their smartphones. He decided to close the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a major thoroughfare with heavy traffic, to non-essential vehicles on weekdays, and created a pedestrian-only plaza on weekends. And he’s limiting traffic on Rome’s most noteworthy roundabout — the one at the Colosseum.
“I can tell you, the news of my decision to close car traffic around the Colosseum, it was extremely popular worldwide,” Marino said, “and extremely unpopular in Rome.”
He admitted that Rome’s public transit has a problem with fare evasion — sound familiar, Boston? — and suggested an unconventional method of cracking down: Dispatch cute kids to serve as enforcers. In Rome, Marino said, primary school children (under supervision, of course) approach commuters and ask to see their tickets.
“It was actually pretty good,” he said. “They were giving people who had tickets a free pass for a museum, and for those who didn’t have their ticket, they were writing warnings.”
Near the end of his question-and-answer session, a member of the audience talked about his disappointment with Massachusetts public officials’ dependence on cars. It’s been decades since we’ve had a governor who regularly rides the T, he lamented, and he made a thinly veiled nod to this week’s kerfuffle involving Attorney General Martha Coakley, and her predilection for parking in tow-zones while pounding the gubernatorial campaign trail.
“They bring a car and park in areas that the rest of us aren’t allowed to,” the audience member asked. “Everybody looks to the Italians for their exuberance. What advice do you have for us here in Boston about changing the mindsets of our political officials?”
Marino chuckled and said he had had similar experiences, especially when it came to the new pedestrian boulevard on Via dei Fori Imperiali.
“I’m not sure this is advice that politicians here will like, but I can tell you what I decided to do,” he said. “Via dei Fori Imperiali — it’s open, wide, and unfortunately the official cars of members of the Italian government, they think it is easier to go through there, and they do that all the time.”
He went further.
“I didn’t even announce this as of yet,” he teased, “but by June 29 we will take pictures and send to TVs and newspapers. We know by the plate who is in the car, and we let people know all over Italy.
“I think,” he added, amid peals of laughter, “this will change their habit.”
A map that’s useful to locals
People who frequent downtown Boston and the Financial District may have noticed new wayfinding signs that appeared several months ago, courtesy of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. Like most public maps on display in Boston, they feature the usual navigational fare: street names, major landmarks, nearby T stations.
But these maps go a little further as well and cater to more than just the tourist set. Sure, it’s great to know the location of the Old South Meeting House, but how many times does the average Bostonian pay that landmark a visit?
But, this map shows the locations of all the nearest public WiFi hotspots, a much more useful thing to know if you ever find yourself in a communication pinch.
And it’s information that the average Bostonian — the ones who don’t need a map to find Faneuil Hall — may not know. Free WiFi at the Irish Famine Memorial? Who knew?
Charlie gets more bars on the T
In other wireless news, InSite Wireless — the telecommunications infrastructure company working to get cellphone service on the whole T system — has come out with a new announcement on when to expect more coverage within the bowels of Boston’s transit system.
Enthusiasm abounded when, a year ago, AT&T customers started noticing vastly improved cellphone service throughout the system. By now, they have blanketed the MBTA system.
Still, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint only offer service on some parts of the T. That’s going to change soon, an InSite representative said last week. T-Mobile and Sprint, which currently only operate lackluster 2G and 3G networks in the tunnels, will have 4G service in every tunnel within the next few months. And Verizon, whose full cellphone service only extends to the system’s core stations, will have 3G in outlying stations by the end of the summer.
And the biggest news of all: The company is currently installing the infrastructure to introduce Comcast XFinity WiFi on all Green Line platforms by the end of the year.
Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.