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The Taming of the Italian Stallion:
Car-Free Day's Mixed Messages

10.18.2000 | ENVIRONMENT

On September 22nd, not a car or scooter moved down the streets of Florence. The banning of these methods of transportation cut out a major vein of transportation--at the heart of a thriving Italian city, and at the heart of an Italian soul. Without the usual clogs of commuters, the double decker coaches, private taxis, and hotel transports surreptitiously carrying out their agendas and itineraries, slipped through the clots of police.

From the suit-clad professionals to the orange jumpers of public workers, Florentines set aside (with a proliferation of expletives and wild gesticulation) private transportation for public people movers--commuting via foot or public bus. The tourists, whether American, German, or Japanese, moved in mass in their method of choice. Here was the audible and visible diagramming of the Italian city's structural hierarchy: tourists are in the top coach, residents are on the lower decks.

The European Union sponsored their second annual car-free day that Friday. Their motive for asking European cities to banish car usage, as reported by Elisa Cecchi in the Italy Daily, was "to encourage the use of public transport--and whet citizens' appetite for traffic-free city centers." Florence tasted the rather bitter pill of public transport with 160 Italian cities, and 800 other European metropolises.

Guide Francesca, from the American Express tour roster, had her hands full that particular Friday. The biggest groups she's had this season --totally 70 adults who speak English and German--with whom she must constantly translate her comments, babysit personal needs ("where is the water closet?), watch for those that invariable get lost, while providing "total immersion in the magical atmosphere of life in this city", as touted by the tour's brochure. This is the seventh straight day she's guided groups to witness the majesty of antiquity. And it is car-free day.

During her early introductions on this whale of a bus's loud speaker, Francesca maneuvers through the logistical hurdles with more difficulty than the linguistical. "I am so sorry for the delay in leaving the city", she apologizes with the sweetest of Italian accented English, "but do to particular holiday, we must show our special pass as a select tour group to navigate around the road blocks." As the bus driver hisses rapid, sharply tongued Italian to one of the many police barricades, Francesca's ability to provide "cultural tours in English conducted in an entertaining way" is hampered. The motorists who fail to slip through the traffic guards, are even further hindered.

With last years tally caulking up 80% of Italian populations leaving their cars at home in 90 cities, the Environmental Ministry and other government official declared the event a success. European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom told Reuters, "In Italy and Spain the citizens were saying 'we want this every week.'"

Not all officials followed Wallstrom's optimism. Giorio Goggi, Milan's transportation commissionaire, commented, "It is too much to ask citizens to leave their cars at home on a work day." Motoring organizations, expressing their chagrin in Reuters, wrote off the day at a publicity stunt. Yet even Italy's two largest environmental organizations, World Wildlife Fund and Legambiente, felt that car-free day had no real impact to reduce pollution, congestion, or accident. The United Nation's initiative for the day, (with the rather grandiose title of "Clean Up the World"), did activate its message: Italians worked in cities and countries on concrete clean-up efforts.

The EU sees their car-free day as an opportunity for awareness raising, not just smog reduction. Yet it is their day: the citizens targeted for this "awareness raising", and thus pinned as the polluters needing education, are not ignorant. Italian citizens recognize and live with their environmental issues: Venice is sinking 2 inches every 10 years; Florence had to remove the statue David from its original location (as a public statue in front of the city's municipality) to the Academia for protection from the coercive elements. It is the impact of tourists--the pollution, the Disney Stores, the process of gentrification--which need the EU's awareness raising.

After multiple delays and more apologies, Francesca's bus moved onward to tour the enclaves of Siena and San Gimignano, a medieval city where ATM machines have been built directly into the stone facades. The bus slid through the Florentine streets solo, only accompanied by the other exception to the day's decree: the members of Parliament. Government officials "were allowed to go to work as on any other day, in their chauffeur-driven blue cars", affirmed Cecchi. In their wake, was a portion of the 18 million Italians that the EU slated to leave their cars at home.

"It took me hours to get to work today," moaned Claudia. As the front desk receptionist at the Hotel Belletini, a bustling Florentine lodge filled to capacity during its peak season, Claudia must deal with hassles during the day, and tries to avoid them on the way there. "I couldn't ride my scooter to work today. But I couldn't park it on the street either, as it was the same day for street cleaning. By leaving my car at home for the environment, I was rewarded by a ticket."

September 21st sent mixed singles: challenging Italian employees to arrive at work, while exonerating the tourist, and their bedfellows in Parliament, to roam they wanted. "Everyone lives outside the city center." Claudia voiced. "Public transportation takes 3 times as long for the commute." Perhaps the makers of Alfa Romaros and Ferrari maintain a cult of the car, but beyond the fashion fetish, their cities have become domains for the visitor, not the resident.

With the lira falling and the pope's Jubilee 2000, this summer set new highs for tourists. As reported by the Federation of Hoteliers, Americans alone accounted for 2.5 million visitors to Italy, aiming to abuse the dollar's inflated purchasing power of Florentine leather's and Venetian glass.

Just Northeast of Florence, a noontime Venice is awash in tidal waters, and the high tides of tourists. During the day, the city bustles with the waves of groups, a lone guide bravely leading the masses with a raised umbrella. Yet by night, the symbols of the urban flight are palpable: streets turn into alleyways, apartments become ghostly caverns. Their city center population has fallen dramatically--from 160,000 in 1966 to 60,000 today.

"You ask how much the rent is?", retorts Sabrina tour guide when questioned. "You can't even find a rental. The owners of the property make as much off of me in a month as they make from you in a week."

In addition to economic barriers and governmental regulations, "UNESCO says that alterations can't be made to many of the properties, as they are historical landmarks. So the properties are being thrown away from use to keep up Venice as a city of history, a tourist but not inhabitants reality."

As a 19 year old starting her freshman year at the University of Florence, Claudia cares about the environment. She is not alone: Italy Daily reported that the environment is Italy's 2nd greatest social concern, with 46% of the Italians surveyed, just below peace. Yet employment is perhaps the greatest concern. And employment for many of these city's citizens comes from tourism.

What the car-free day highlighted, beyond its environmental awareness message was its lack of sensitivity to the transportation constrains of its citizens, and the exemptions made in its rhetoric. Environment Minister Wiler Bordon rode his bicycle to work; but in keeping with "the bureaucracy of Italian politics", as Claudia summarized, the ministers rode in their limousines and the tourists took their buses as per usual.

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