ROME — In a bid to protect its ancient glories from modern perils, Rome is banning cars and motor scooters from the boulevard that slices through the city’s ancient forums toward the Colosseum.
Traffic police started enforcing the new restrictions early Saturday, diverting private cars and motor scooters to side streets, so they will no longer clog the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Only buses, taxis, bicycles and pedestrians will be allowed on that boulevard, built in the 1930s by dictator Benito Mussolini so military parades could roll past reminders of the ancient Roman empire.
Mayor Ignazio Marino announced the ban soon after his election in May. He said that among other things, the ban will stop the Colosseum from being a traffic “roundabout” and reduce pollution.
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Sidewalks have been widened so people can stroll in leisure down the boulevard.
Marino’s ban on private traffic on the roadway, which bisects a vast archaeological site, from the central Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum, prompted grousing and histrionic debate over a project that conservators say would solidify the world’s largest urban archaeological area.
This being Rome, the project provoked its share of unfavorable comparisons with the overweening ambitions of emperors past. “The mayor’s job is not to pass into history, but to work for his citizens,” said Luciano Canfora, a professor of classics at the University of Bari. “We already had Nero; that’s more than enough.”
He predicted the traffic project would “torture” other Romans with “catastrophic” traffic jams.
To the mayor, the project is the cornerstone of a bigger vision that plays on Rome’s strengths and uniqueness to develop a strategy for the city based on environmental and cultural sustainability.
“I want to change what was a highly trafficked street into a walk into history,” Marino, 58, said in an interview last week at his offices. “It’s part of a dream of giving back to Romans, Italians and people from around the world this incredible place where the history of the Western world developed.”
Most modern Romans, especially neighborhood’s residents, have more practical concerns. Most have to do with the anticipated spillover effect of closing a broad avenue used by as many as 1,600 motorists an hour during peak times of day, according to city statistics.
Residents’ associations and local shopkeepers fret about aggravating the traffic congestion that is already as Roman as the city’s famed cupolas, making their lives even more “invivibile,” a common Italian expression used by those complaining about life in the capital.
“We will block the streets, set up barricades,” pledged Luciana Gasparini, the president of Via Merulana per L’Esquilino, a neighborhood group that is organizing a protest against the project. In Roman fashion, the protest will take place in September, once people have returned from their August holidays.
Franco Aldini, a tailor with a shop on Via Labicana, complained that his business had already dropped since street work began in preparation for the closing. Aldini said he was considering suing the city for damages if the situation dragged on.
“The mayor can’t decide from one day to the next to lock down a neighborhood,” he said.
But it seems that the mayor can and did, forging ahead with the project that was a centerpiece of his campaign. The first phase occurred Saturday, but the final goal is to make the Via dei Fori Imperiali a pedestrian area from one end to the other, and to finance the project with subsidies from the European Union.
“I think Rome needed a kind of shock,” said the mayor, a former transplant surgeon, using the analogy of a person receiving emergency treatment. “The city had been sleeping and needed to wake up. After the shock, you go on to live a long, productive life.”
Marino spent nearly 20 years of his career as a transplant surgeon in the United States — in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — before returning to Rome in 2006, when he plunged into politics and was elected to the Senate with the center-left Democratic Party. This year, he decided not to run again at a national level but instead turned his sights on Rome, the city he “loves most in the world,” he said, easily beating Gianni Alemanno, the incumbent, center-right mayor, in June.
He cheerfully acknowledged he would be “crucified” by citizens in the short term but said it was worth fighting for a “vision of what I want this city to be in 30 years.”
“No one will remember who the mayor was in 2013, but everyone will appreciate the pedestrian area.”
He also said he hoped the road closure would help modify Romans’ driving habits by encouraging more residents to leave their vehicles at home. He said about 60 percent of Romans travel less than 3 miles a day to get to work.
“As a scientist, I find that numbers give a more clear and precise picture,” he said, and gave a few facts: 970 of every 1,000 adult Romans have a car as compared to 340 in London, and the average speed of public transportation in the capital is 9 mph. “One of the slowest in the Western world,” he said. “You could run faster.”