Ancient Rome forbade downtown traffic in day

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July 30, 1960 | Vol. 78 | No. 5        

Ancient Rome forbade downtown traffic in day

Rome’s narrow streets were not marked “One Way” but in effect they were, because each driver sent a runner ahead to hold up traffic at the other end of the street or alley until the chariot had passed through.

The fringe parking plan used in modern large cities to relieve the downtown parking problem was used in Rome in the days of Julius Caesar. In the Roman day there were 12 hours of “daylight” adjusted according to the season. Private vehicles were forbidden on the city streets from dawn until two hours before dark. A traveler coming to Rome had to park his carriage at the city gates and continue into town either on foot or in a carrying chair or litter.

Traffic officers in ancient Rome belonged to a corps originally organized to guard against fires. They were officially known as Vigiles, but popularly called the “little bucket fellows.” Most traffic restrictions and regulations were lifted at sundown, but the Vigiles handled the situation when two wagon drivers would get into a noisy dispute about the right of way. The police-firemen in Rome were freed slaves, Kenneth D. Matthews Jr., of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum, reports in Expedition, 2:22, 1960.

Women drivers were not a problem in ancient Rome. In the third century B.C. a law was passed forbidding women to ride in carriages. Twenty years later the ladies of Rome forced the repeal of this law but during the first century A.D. the restriction was again in force.


UPDATE | October 8, 2011        

Congestion in ancient city isn’t a thing of the past

Many of Rome’s famous sites sit within the city’s Limited Traffic Zone, where motor vehicle access is restricted.

Just because all roads lead to Rome doesn’t mean you can get in — at least not on wheels. During Julius Caesar’s reign, daytime access to the Eternal City was restricted, with travelers required to hitch their carriages outside the city gates. And, as it turns out, traffic troubles are as enduring as the city itself.

While officials today don’t have a problem with female drivers, there is a renewed interest in curbing congestion (and the more modern problem of exhaust fumes). During the 1980s, the city instituted a series of policies that culminated in what’s called a Limited Traffic Zone, which keeps all automobiles without special permits or privileges out of a 4.2-square-kilometer portion of the city during much of the day. Motorbikes are excepted, which probably explains why they are commonly spotted zipping past quaint piazzas and historic ruins. Additional measures farther from the city’s core try to discourage people from driving extra-dirty polluters and encourage reliance on public transport.

Rome isn’t alone in its efforts to relieve traffic woes. A number of cities around the world are experimenting with gridlock busters: Stockholm has plans to finish a ring road designed to divert heavy flow around the city. London charges a daily fee for vehicles that enter a restricted traffic area, a scheme known as congestion taxing. Cologne is targeting its existing transport system, widening roads and improving tram networks.

Though no one will deny Rome’s road-building legacy, the next great city may be the one whose roads (and other transport arteries) master the morning commute. —Elizabeth Quill 

Credit: ©Mauritius images GmbH/Alamy