An unlikely source for lessons in traffic reduction

Hate sitting in traffic? You aren’t alone – Americans spend, on average, 38 hours per year stuck in traffic. We tend to think of congestion as a uniquely modern problem – that wasted time seems like a concrete result of the age of cars, not something with which our pre-industrial ancestors would have had to deal.

As it turns out, traffic plagued cities long before the internal combustion engine became a centerpiece of our society. It was particularly a problem in Ancient Rome. Historians estimate that the capitol city of that great empire peaked at around a million people, and most of its roads were little more than dirt paths. Other than the two main thoroughfares Via Sacra and Via Nova, most streets in the city were too narrow for two carts to pass side by side.

To deal with the problem, emperors took measures that wouldn’t go over well in modern times – soon after he gained control of the city, Julius Caesar banned all wheeled traffic from Rome’s center during the first ten hours of the day (which was twelve hours). Although similar proposals have been tossed around for several major cities, it’s hard to imagine a complete ban on traffic in central Manhattan, Boston, or (perish the thought) Los Angeles within our lifetimes.

Unfortunately for the impoverished citizens of Rome, Caesar’s mandate just confined traffic to the nighttime. The poet Juvenal wrote of the racket:

Insomnia causes most deaths here . . . Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions, and that’s the root of the trouble. The waggons thundering past through those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught in a traffic-jam, would rouse a dozing seal—or an emperor.  (Juvenal, Satire 3.232–238)

The restrictions didn’t end with Rome – Claudius took the idea of the daylight ban and spread it throughout Italy, and Marcus Aurelius spread it throughout the empire. Hadrian took aim at nighttime traffic, placing upper limits on the numbers of carts allowed in the city at all.

It’s important to note that traffic problems didn’t end with the crowded streets of urban Rome – it was an issue throughout the empire, even in the well-planned towns and cities with relatively wide streets. The Romans discovered traffic generation millennia before we figured it out. They never mastered the problem, but I’d like to think we have a chance. We have more cars than ever before, but also more options for mass and alternative transit. People will keep moving, but as long as they do it in personal vehicles traffic will continue to choke our cities. The best we can do is provide those alternatives – we may not be the first culture to deal with traffic issues, but if we play our cards right we could be the last.

For more light reading on Roman traffic, check out The Embattled Driver in Ancient Rome (1960). Although not for the faint of heart, Lewis Mumford’s imposing tome The City in History (1961) also covers the subject (and many others) well in Chapter 8, “Megalopolis into Necropolis.” 

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One thought on “An unlikely source for lessons in traffic reduction

  1. Pingback: Cutting the Gordian traffic knot | A View from Suburbia

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