For all its drawbacks and faults, which I have mostly avoided discussing in these essays, Rome does have an elaborate and fine public transportation system. I grew up in Oregon in the United States and for the past forty years have lived in New Mexico. In both states we have nothing to boast of for getting from point A to point B if you don’t have a car, compared to the Roman and Italian public transportation systems in general.
Let’s start with buses and trolleys, called trams here. They are everywhere in Rome and basically go wherever you need to get to. You must, of course, board the right bus or tram and make the right connections. The schedules are online and even when standing at a bus stop there are computerized indicators at most major stops as to when the next buses are arriving. This timely information is also available online.
The method of payment for bus or tram rides is fairly simple. Tickets cost 1.50 Euro each, equal to about USA $1.85. A single ticket can be used for up to ninety minutes on buses, trams or the Metro (subway). Some destinations in town or a little out of town require more than one bus, or a bus and a tram and/or subway ride, for instance. A trip usually takes less than ninety minutes, so it normally possible, at least for me, to get where you want or need to go with just one ticket. The return trip will require another ticket.
Tickets are not available on buses or trams and must be purchased at Tobacco Shops located all over town, where more than just tobacco is sold, of course. Innumerable newspaper and magazine stands in the city sell bus and tram tickets as well. The stands are everywhere you turn. One can also purchase, though I never do, weekly or monthly passes. There are also yearly passes (called a “tessera”), costing a bit more than one hundred dollars, which you can use on buses, trams and the Metro, every day, all day, anywhere, for an entire year. This is a good investment, especially for students and workers who might need public transportation on many or most days of the week. The process of getting a yearly pass is a bit complicated, but that is how Italian bureaucracy goes. I know a monk who got yearly pass and it seems to have been a very un-straightforward procedure.
When you board a bus or tram, either with a single, weekly or monthly pass, it must be validated at one of the machines at the entrance, middle or back of the bus or tram. Yearly passes must simply be carried on one’s person. No money is exchanged on the bus, tram or subway. The same is the case for riding the subway. Before getting to the Metro track for the right train, one must put the previously purchased ticket into a machine that opens a gate to let you pass to the tracks. The “gate opening machine” returns the validated ticket.
The machine on the bus and Metro stations will stamp the time of “punching in” on the returned ticket. From that moment one has up to ninety minutes for using the ticket. The time of expiration is printed on the validated ticket. If the time runs out before the completion of the trip, another ticket must used. This, of course, is not the case for those carrying weekly, monthly or yearly passes. Yearly passes need to be scanned on the machine at the Metro station for the gate to open for entry on to the tracks. For bus and tram travel, it just needs to be on your person.
The purchasing, carrying and validating of tickets is strictly on the honor system. There are no guards checking if and when you take a bus or tram. However, there are regular “spot checks” on the buses, trams and subways, by hired controllers, who pop on and off buses, trams and Metro trains to see if people have validly punched tickets or passes or are carrying their year-long pass. I am writing this because very recently, and for the first time since I arrived in Rome in January of 2017, controllers appeared on a bus that I was on. I don’t use the bus or tram all that often, as I normally like to walk to where I am going if at all possible. I do use the bus, the tram and the Metro trains on a somewhat regular basis, though, but until recently, had not met controllers on any of my rides.
Because of my less than frequent trips I only buy single bus/tram/Metro tickets, usually getting fifteen at a time, which last quite a while. I also provide them for others in our curia who may occasionally need them. Living in the “centro storico,” the historic center of Rome, it is fairly easy to get to the Vatican and other necessary places simply on foot. I am grateful for that fact and enjoy the exercise. Our famous Espanola, New Mexico, doctor, W. Murray Ryan, started telling me when I was in my forties, that walking is an important part of staying well. Twenty-five years later I adhere to his admonition, and know it is a truth worth embracing. Here I try to walk for an hour every day.
But back to the bus controllers. On a recent Saturday morning another monk and I took a bus from the Vatican, and only after boarding and I validated my ticket and sat down, was I aware of two controllers, one in the front of the bus and one at the back, moving through the bus. The first one asked to see my ticket and while doing so the second controller arrived. I was good to go. My travelling companion, without a ticket in hand, drew inquisitive looks from the two controllers. “Maybe we had caught a violator,” must have run through their heads. At the same moment the monk reached for his wallet and presented his yearly bus pass. One of the controllers took it to the nearby validating machine on the bus, scanned it on the front of the machine, and could see it was a current and valid pass. We were both safe.
A woman near us was not so fortunate. She could only produce old bus tickets, but no valid one for the trip underway, and did not even have an unused ticket that she might have been allowed to validate then. At least that was my impression, that if she had an unused ticket, she might be allowed to use it. I say this in part because I sensed the controllers were not harsh or menacing, but nonetheless professional and carried out their task seriously.
Because the woman on the bus was not carrying a validated ticket, she was told she must pay a fine of 125 Euros, approximately $154.00 US dollars. Oddly enough, that is exactly what the monk with me had paid for his yearly pass. He laughed, not at the unfortunate woman, but grateful that he had his bus pass. Like me, this was the first time for the monk needing to show the yearly pass that he had gotten seven months earlier.
Here I confess that I used to live a little more dangerously in Rome thirty-three years ago as a student, and didn’t always have a validated ticket in hand on bus or tram rides. I would never do that now, at age sixty-five, having decided so when I arrived here last year. The recent “day of reckoning,” when I was asked to present a valid ticket, proved the point.
Aside from the “honesty is the best policy lesson,” I wish to emphasize again that the presence of the buses and Metro in Rome is a great assistance for getting around, including to the main train station, the airport and other destinations, and that buses, trams and the Metro run very regularly from early morning until late at night. There are also cabs, of course, which I hardly ever use, but so on rare occasions if need be. Cabs are not wildly expensive and presumably living here and speaking Italian helps not to be “taken for a ride,” as some taxi drivers perhaps everywhere are tempted to do to unknowing visitors.
The only glitch in the public transportation system is the occasional strike, called a “sciopero” in Italian, which, as intended, cripples a multitude of travelers on a given day. Normally the strikes are announced well in advance, are usually from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm, and last just one day. You simply have to know when there is going to be a sciopero and plan accordingly. The intent of the sciopero is obtaining higher wages for drivers, who are government workers. I have to no idea if this actually is achieved after a given strike. Fortunately strikes don’t often happen, so I haven’t been greatly inconvenienced by their occasional occurrence. Many others no doubt have been. Students, be they clergy, religious or lay, who live outside of Rome, usually cannot get to classes when there is a strike. On such days classes at the Roman Pontifical Universities have to be cancelled, since so few students will likely be present. Those who can walk simply don’t show up, knowing others who must ride into town won’t be coming either!
When all is said and done, I am grateful for the Public Transportation system in the Eternal City. Ancient Romans never had it so good! Nor do modern Oregonians and New Mexicans!