Crossing streets in Rome might be considered a fine art. At nearly any hour of the day, beginning by 7:00 am or even earlier, and extending well into the night, the many and often wide major streets of Rome are teeming with traffic. This is no surprise or cause for alarm, but crossing those streets on foot takes practice and finesse. Some of this may depend on one’s level of comfort regarding stepping into heavy traffic and “casting your fate to the wind,” as we sang in the 1960’s.
Let me explain. Many busy Roman streets do not have traffic lights or pedestrian signals. Some streets certainly do and that is a help. However, you have to remember to push a button at the crosswalks with signals that will eventually turn the oncoming traffic lights red and make crossing safe.
Many other busy streets simply do not have lights or signals, but there are usually white “zebra stripes” where crossing is permitted. At such crossings, usually at street corners, but not always, one has to simply begin to move across the zebra stripes and trust (and this is important) that cars will slow down, stop, or “work around you,” so to speak. It’s almost a dance and has to be learned to avoid fatality.
Sometimes tourists tend to “freeze up” in the middle of zebra crossings, thinking they need to wait for a car or many cars to pass before they can continue on. In fact the Italian drivers of cars don’t know what to do when people stop in the middle of the crosswalk. The best thing is to keep moving, so that drivers of vehicles can adequately determine their own need to slow down, stop or to work around pedestrians.
It is truly amazing, maybe even frightening, to see how quickly drivers can and do slow down or stop in order to allow foot traffic to safely cross a street. On the wider streets drivers simply “swing around” pedestrians and all goes well. Again, it’s almost like a dance, but takes courage to “go on stage” and head out on the crosswalk.
Otherwise one will likely have to wait a very long time for the traffic to be sparse enough to make passage completely safe. Roman drivers of cars, buses, motorcycles and motors scooters (think of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn) for the most part seem respectful of pedestrians. I’m sure mishaps do occur, so exercise of caution is always wise, and while many people jay-walk or cross streets when the signal says not to, there is good reason to observe the rules. In other words, at crosswalks with signals it is best to wait for a green light.
The story here goes that if a pedestrian is hit in a designated crosswalk with zebra stripes it is technically and legally the fault of the driver. If one is hit outside of zebra stripe crosswalks, then it is technically and legally the pedestrian’s fault. And the reply is: does it really matter? One is likely dead in either case!
Certainly caution has to be part of the street crossing experience in Rome, but not scrupulosity. That may sound flippant, but drivers of buses, cars and scooters are not out to kill people, it seems to me, so use common sense, I tell myself, be confident and get across the street if and when you need to. “He who hesitates is lost,” as the saying goes. In the present context, he who hesitates might save his life, or he who rushes across a street without caution many also perish.
The only type of vehicle on the streets that I have not mentioned is trams or trolleys. These I never expect to slow down or stop for pedestrians, so one should never take a chance and presume they will stop for you. When crossing a street, let trams pass or only cross the street when they are stopped at a red light and the pedestrian crossing has a green light.
Where they exist, sidewalks are always the safest place to walk, of course, but even doing so one has to be attentive. A a recent afternoon while going to the Vatican and walking on a sidewalk, just past the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, I happened to look over my left shoulder. No one else was on the sidewalk near me at that moment but a motorcycle was in fact barreling down the sidewalk toward me! There really wasn’t time to react and the cyclist had no intention of clobbering me, I’m sure, just taking an easy shortcut through the nearly vacant sidewalk to bypass the thick congestion of traffic on the busy Lungotevere Street.
This is one of the advantages of having a motorcycle, I suppose, with which one can simply jump onto the sidewalk and make a dash to get ahead of a traffic jam and re-enter the street. Rome is full of surprises and that was one for me near the Vatican.