Traffic and Congestion Problems are Nothing New

POSTED ON June 14, 2024 BY James Garry

Ancient Rome had some of the worst congestion in History

Edinburgh is frequently identified as one of the most congested cities in the UK.  To tackle this issue the City of Edinburgh Council is bringing forward a new plan for the city’s roads, called ‘Our Future Streets’, which is intended to advance the council’s declared ambitions of reaching net zero and achieving a 30 per cent reduction in car kilometres by 2030. This plan will go further than the previously agreed City Centre Transformation proposals and aims to create ‘a city centre that is far less vehicle dominated’.  However traffic congestion is not just a modern problem and Edinburgh is not the first capital city to try and address this issue.

According to one estimate,  ancient Rome had about 60 miles of streets and most of these seemed to have suffered from acute congestion and traffic jams which the authorities struggled to control successfully. While Rome had some broad, handsome boulevards lined with statues and monuments, the vast majority of  the street system consisted of narrow, twisting lanes and alleyways that had developed haphazardly, in the almost total absence of anything resembling modern town planning, as the city and its population grew rapidly to become one  of the largest cities of its day.  Events such as the  ‘Great Fire of Rome’ in 64 CE offered occasional opportunities for proactive urban planning.  After the fire, the emperor Nero effected a more organised city plan, with wider, straight roads for better access and fire control.  Nevertheless, numerous ‘choke points’ persisted such as city gates which hindered to traffic flow and the magnificent baths and forums that were added to the city centre drew in innumerable locals and visitors alike.

Regulations did exist, Roman streets were supposed to be at least 2.5 metres wide.  Although in the teeming, chaotic city the authorities largely failed in their attempts to enforce this. Close study of the streets of Pompeii and Xanten suggest that it was customary to travel one-way on narrow streets with two-way traffic, with a left priority, occupying broader streets. It is not known just how widespread and well observed this custom was. Nonetheless it is likely that some of the traffic conventions observed at Pompeii and other cities were also observed in Rome. How otherwise could  traffic move at all?

It was not until the 4th century BCE that the citizens of Rome possessed their first paved streets and by the 2nd century CE many streets in the capital were paved, rather like those seen in Pompeii today. However these were often encrusted with all manner of human and animal filth often mixed into an unpleasant, stinking slurry with water from  overflowing fountains.  In addition,  the sheer mass of the city’s population made making any sort of progress through Rome’s streets a challenge. The poet Juvenal’s satires provide a candid glimpse into the complexities of everyday life ancient Rome. In his view, one obvious aspect of life in Rome that made it an undesirable place to live was the city’s streets with their crushing, ill-mannered crowds, hurrying porters  and waggons carrying all manner of goods, clinging mud, and ceaseless noise.  At night, muggers, drunks, and flying chamber pots added to the dangers.  All accompanied by the incessant drone of waggon wheels on flagstones.

Thousands of vehicles tried to enter Rome’s streets each day. Some of these  were the litters of the elite who, accompanied by guards, could usually avoid the less salubrious aspects of Rome’s streets. Although most vehicles were goods waggons which slowly ploughed their way through the heaving masses of hapless pedestrians in the narrow streets.  Accidents were commonplace.  As the city continued to expand, this was clearly not a sustainable situation  and both citizens and city magistrates knew that something had to be done.

During Julius Caesar’s rule, daytime access to Rome was restricted. Travelers were required to hitch their carriages outside the city gates during daylight hours. The Roman day was divided into 12 hours of ‘daylight,’ adjusted according to the season. Private vehicles were forbidden on the city streets from dawn until two hours before dark.  This measure aimed to alleviate traffic congestion and noise caused by horse-drawn carts, and to control the fouling of the street by horses and mules. There were  exemptions for vehicles engaged in state construction projects and it is worth noting that significant new infrastructure tended to be added to the city with the accession of each new emperor and these were a significant factor adding to an already congested city.  The carriages of priests, priestesses and ceremonial vehicles were also exempt from Caesar’s law. Naturally members of the elite tended to regard themselves as exempt too.   Caesar’s  law was amended and extended over the years but remained in  force until Late Antiquity when civic life and the vitality of the city diminished.

At Pompeii certain parts of the city, such as the forum, excluded vehicular traffic entirely and the same may have been true for parts of Rome.  As far as we can tell there were no street signs or addresses. Although provision for loading and off-loading clearly existed as well as private arrangements for parking personal and commercial vehicles.  The same must have been true for Rome. Traffic wardens, in a modern sense, were unknown.  However, the emperor Augustus established a fire brigade of seven thousand men known as the Vigiles,  but familiarly called the ‘little bucket fellows.’ Their duties came to include policing and quelling disturbances associated with the nocturnal flow of traffic.  By day, three thousand men known as the Urban Cohorts performed a similar function, particularly at the city’s gates.  However, as the city grew beyond the republican walled city much of the traffic flow may have been relatively unpoliced during the day.

Clearly, traffic congestion in historic city centres is nothing new. In Edinburgh, city officials do not  have the same range of issues to deal with as their predecessors in ancient Rome and they have greater civic resources and powers. Alhough it is interesting  that some of the ancient city’s problem are not unlike those of modern Edinburgh.  In its heyday the bustling teeming city of Rome never really got on top of its congestion problems.  After Augustus, later emperors sought additional ways to ensure that Rome’s streets were maintained, clean and free from obstructions. Clearly this was important to them. By our standards they probably had rather mixed success.  It is to be hoped that ‘Our Future Streets’ is more successful.


Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

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