Table of Contents
Since the founding of Rome in the 7th century B.C., Romans have been known for excelling in engineering public infrastructure. The saying “all roads lead to Rome” was true for the ancient Romans, who built a carefully planned network of roads for the efficient transport of goods and people. They constructed roads connecting Rome to the rest of the vast empire, which at its peak, included everything around the Mediterranean Sea, and ruled over 20% of the world’s population at that time. Roads such as the Via Appia Antica, built in 312 B.C., carried military supplies and troops, as well as oxen driven carts and horse drawn carriages. Today, Rome’s roads, ancient as well as modern, carry pedestrians, cars, and public buses and trams. Underneath the roads run Rome’s metro lines, and trains connect Rome to other cities. But despite the widespread presence of public transportation, is it equally accessible to all? Are roads that are suitable for driving and walking also navigable for the mobility impaired? Do buses, trams, and trains allow access via ramps and priority seating? This article will examine disability accessibility in modern day Roman public transportation and infrastructure.
Rome serves as the capital of Italy’s Lazio region, as well as the capital of Italy. As Rome’s city boundaries are quite extensive, we will focus only on the Centro Storico, or historical center of Rome. This historical center sits on the Tiber river, in the center of Rome, and encompasses the twenty historical districts, or Rioni, that make up Municipio I. Although it only covers 7.7 square miles, it is the most densely populated area of Rome and is formed around the seven ancient hills upon which Rome was founded. The historical center features many of the best known sights in Rome, such as the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Coliseum.
|Figure 1. Map of 14 Rioni of Rome. Wikipedia.|
|Figure 2. Red highlighted area shows Municipio I within city of Rome’s boundaries. Wikipedia.|
II. Disability in Italy
2.1 What is a disability?
Previously considered a problem in health or ability relating specifically to the individual, the definition of disability has changed significantly in the last several decades, shifting from the “medical model” to the “social model.” The current understanding focuses not on the person, but instead on his or her ability to interact with the environment in what is considered a “normal” manner. According to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health, created by the World Health Organization (WHO), the most recent definition of disability is from the “ecological perspective.” In this definition, disability is a restriction or limitation that results from an impairment. Impairment is defined as “any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.” For example, a person without the ability to use their legs has an impairment, and may require the use of a wheelchair. They experience disability when they face physical barriers to access such as stairs or an intersection without curb cuts. In this article, we will focus on physical impairments as they relate to functional disabilities. From this perspective, a disability can be minimized or even eliminated if a person with an impairment has their needs accounted for. The way the environment is designed and built can either enable or disable somebody. In terms of engineering in public transportation and infrastructure, this means providing access in a manner that can provide safety and autonomy for users.
2.2 Disability Rate in Italy
According to 2013 data collected by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) there are about 3 million people over the age of six in Italy who report themselves as “severely disabled.” This accounts for about 5% of the Italian population. This percentage includes all disabilities, including functioning, hearing, and speech related impairments. A smaller 1.3% of the population reports their disability falling under “mobility issues.” The rate of mobility disability significantly increases with age, with 0.13% of Italians age 15-24 experiencing difficulties in mobility compared to 5.4% of Italians aged 75-79. The rate increases significantly to 9.65% for Italians over the age of 80. Of the people experiencing mobility disability, more than half report requiring the use of a wheelchair.
Table 1. Percentage of mobility disability in Italy by age and gender. Data from ISTAT.
|Gender||6-14||15-24||25-34||35-44||45-54||55-64||65-69||70-74||75-79||80 & up||total|
2.3. Disability Law in Italy
Since the 1960s, there have been several laws put in plate supporting Italians facing disabilities. Italian law number 104 established in 1992, the “Framework Law for Assistance, Social Inclusion and the Rights of Disabled Persons,” outlines a wide range of rights of people experiencing disability. Article 26, covering mobility and public transport, provides specifics regarding the requirements of public transport for those experiencing disabilities. The law requires municipalities to enable people experiencing disabilities to “move freely within the territory,” using “specially adapted public transport services.” It also requires that regional transportation services adjust their services and regions to restructure their urban infrastructure plans to allow access to handicapped persons. Because the implementation is left up to municipalities, there is a varied degree of compliance with the law. Italy has no such law like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that provides codes for buildings, sidewalks, and public transportation to meet specific accessibility standards. As a result, much of the accessibility engineering in Rome is inconsistent in both its existence and functionality.
III. Walkability and Wheelability of Rome
3.1 What is “walkability?”
Although there are many different definitions of what makes a city “walkable,” most definitions share a few key factors. Walkability measures how friendly an area is to pedestrians. Among the considerations are factors such as whether there are safe footpaths available, and the ease of accessing local public transit (Carr, 2010). Walkable neighborhoods typically have public parks and gathering spaces, buildings close to and accessible from the streets, and streets designed to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles in a safe manner, reducing the risk of pedestrian collisions or injuries. A well-engineered neighborhood will allow easy travel for not only walking pedestrians, but also impaired pedestrians using wheelchairs or walkers, and even children being pushed in strollers. This includes even and well-maintained sidewalks with minimal trip hazards and appropriate curb ramps at crosswalks. Also taken into consideration is the width of sidewalks, and the presence of buffers between the sidewalks and the road that make sidewalks safer.
3.2 Is Rome walkable?
Rome, especially the historical center, has always been built for walking. The ancient city, founded long before the invention of automobiles, was designed to be not only easily navigable for pedestrians, but also included wide roads for transporting its goods and armies. The modern city center of Rome is densely woven, with public piazzas featuring beautiful old fountains in every neighborhood, and cafes and produce markets tucked around corners. The biggest tourist attractions are nearly all within a mile or so of each other, or about a half hour’s walk. One can walk from the Colosseum to the Pantheon in under thirty minutes, and then from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain in another ten. Despite how walkable and easily navigable the city is, the streets are often laid with uneven cobblestone and many smaller streets do not even have sidewalks. For the physically unimpaired, these issues are often nothing but a slight inconvenience. Mothers and fathers pick up their children’s strollers at crosswalks, potholes and missing cobblestones are carefully avoided, and upon hearing the honk of a vehicle, pedestrians step quickly to the side. For the mobility impaired, the lack of safe, paved sidewalks and unending presence of cobblestones is not a simple inconvenience but a hazard, rendering much of Rome unwheelable.
Most of the cobblestone, which is especially common in neighborhoods such as Trastevere, is made of black basalt stones called sampietrini. Sampietrini, meaning “St. Peter’s stones,” have been used to pave the streets since the 16th century. While the stones are quite strong and water permeable, they are also extremely slippery when wet, and become uneven over time due to settling. The individual stones are not held in place by concrete, but instead individually hammered into the sandbed of the street. The work is specialized, with very few people with the knowledge of how to pave using sampietrini. While larger, higher-speed roads have been paved over with asphalt, sampietrini are still used in neighborhoods with lower speed limits. On these smaller roads, the sampietrini are often uneven and missing stones in some places, creating haphazard potholes. In some places, a footpath is painted on the side of the street, but is not wide enough for a wheelchair to navigate, and drivers often park their cars over the footpath. As far as cost, a square meter of sampietrini costs about 200 euro, versus 50 euro for a square meter of asphalt (Zoccali, 2017). Acknowledging the high costs and pitfalls of sampietrini pavements, city officials have announced that they are planning to replace larger stretches of road with asphalt, limiting cobblestones to smaller pedestrian streets (Gagliardi, 2005).
|Figure 3. Close up of sampietrini showing unevenness of surface.|
|Figure 4. Missing sampietrini cobblestones creating a large pothole.|
|Figure 5. Narrow marked footpath on sampietrini road. Uneven and too narrow to accomodate a wheelchair.|
|Figure 6. A car parked over the pedestrian crosswalk.|
A video produced by film producer Bernardo Bertolucci recording his experience navigating through the Trastevere neighborhood in his wheelchair.
|Figure 7. An example of a sidewalk that becomes too narrow for a wheelchair to pass. sagetraveling.com.|
Another problem in navigability for people experiencing disabilities is that even on paved sidewalks, many pedestrian crossings lack appropriate and safe curb ramps. Curb ramps make sidewalks and street crossings accessible to persons with disabilities. They allow somebody to easily and safely transition from a sidewalk to a roadway at crossings. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that curb ramps in the U.S. have no more than a 8.3% grade, and must be at least 36 inches wide to allow mobility devices such as scooters, walkers and wheelchairs easy access. In Rome, no specific guideline is required when it comes to curb ramps. At some intersections, there is a curb ramp on one side and not on the other, and at some intersections none at all. In addition, the curb ramps available are not consistent in size or grade. Many are also unmarked, as Italy does not require the use of “detectable markings,” such as the bright yellow domes used in American curb ramps. Due to the lack of a consistent guidelines for accessibility standards, many intersections are a haphazard mix of ramps and no ramps, some marked and some unmarked. I observed at some pedestrian crossings an accessible curb ramp on one side of the street, but none on the other to allow a person using a mobility device to get back onto the sidewalk.
|Figure 8. One side of a crosswalk with accessible features.|
|Figure 9. The other side of the same crosswalk, without a curb cut and no accessible features.|
With a population of about 2.8 million people, Rome has about 2.8 million vehicles as well, almost a perfect 1:1 ratio. The high number of vehicles on Rome’s roadways often cause traffic, and inevitably, accidents. Rome has not only the vehicle collision rate in Italy, but also the highest pedestrian fatality rate as well. In 2015, Rome had 39 pedestrian deaths, which was more than three times the rate in Naples and Milan, two other large, metropolitan Italian cities
(ISTAT, 2015). Drivers often drive aggressively and fast, and motorcyclists often weave through pedestrians as they cross with the right-of-way. This hectic environment and high incident rate not only makes Rome less friendly towards all pedestrians, but especially people experiencing mobility issues that may not be able to get out of the way or react as quickly.
A website called “Sage Traveling” (recommended by travel expert Rick Steves) provides advice on how to navigate many metropolitan European cities while experiencing mobility disability. In a special “Rome Advice” section, Sage Traveling details some more accessibility problems with Rome’s cobblestones and irregular sidewalks, and even includes a video blog by a wheelchair user and some advice on how to navigate the public transportation.
IV. Accessibility in Public Transportation
4.1 Modes of Public Transportation
Examples of physical barriers in public transportation include buses without wheelchair ramps and seating areas, inaccessible underground train or metro stations, and large gaps between the vehicle and platform.
All modes of public transportation, including buses, metro, trams, and regional railways are managed by ATAC in Rome. ATAC is a municipally-owned company that operates over 2,700 buses, 165 trams, 80 metro trains. According to their website, ATAC is committed to guaranteeing persons with disabilities full access to all public transport services. They are working with the government of Rome and the Federation of Associations of People with Disabilities to create permanent accessibility solutions. According to 2013 data from ISTAT, only 54.8% of people in the Lazio region experiencing disability drive, as compared to 75.9% of people without disabilities. This percentage of 54.8% includes people experiencing all types of disability – the percentage of people experiencing a mobility disability that drive is likely significantly lower. 36.6% of people experiencing disability use public transportation in the Lazio region, versus a higher 41.7% of people not experiencing disability.
According to ATAC, 74% of their buses (routes highlighted in yellow on Figure 12) are equipped with boarding platforms and a designated wheelchair area. ATAC also guarantees 19 of their bus lines to be accessible to passengers with motor impairments. Despite the existence of boarding platforms and wheelchair areas, according to Roman student Fulvio Mazza, who experiences a mobility disability, many of the bus ramps are not able to be used. In some buses, there is a bar in the middle of the supposedly accessible entrance that would not allow access for a wheelchair or scooter. Ilthough there is indeed a ramp available, I have never seen it lowered. I have also not seen any buses kneel, even for older people with difficulties getting onto the bus. Although there is a marked area for disability or priority seating in most buses, I observed no physical anchoring mechanisms in the seating areas other than extra railing. In addition to physical accessibility, another consideration is the bus fare. In Rome, there is no reduced bus fare available for seniors or people with disabilities.
|Figure 10. What appears to be a bus ramp that must be pulled down by hand.|
|Figure 11. A woman struggling to get onto the H bus, which is specified by ATAC to be one of its accessible lines. The bar in the middle of the entrance makes it completely inaccessible to wheelchairs and it did not kneel for the woman.|
In addition to its buses, 69% of ATAC’s trams () are equipped with a platform-level floor and a wheelchair area. In my experience, most of the trams are in fact level with the platform, allowing ease of access. Inside, the trams do also have accessible seating areas available. The tram platforms also have ramps going up to the platform. The biggest problem is that most tram platforms are perpendicular to pedestrian crosswalks, and must be accessed by crossing the crosswalk. I observed that although all the tram platforms have accessible ramps, the crosswalk that they are next to does not have curb ramps allowing a person with disability access to the crosswalk in the first place. Without access to the crosswalk, they cannot access the ramp accessible tram platform.
|Figure 12. Transit map of Roma Centro. ATAC S.pa.|
|Figure 13. This tram platform on Line 8 has accessible curb ramps but the pedestrian intersection to get to the platform does not.|
Rome also has three metro lines: A, B, and C. The A and B lines are connected at Termini station, while the C line is still in the process of being completed. According to the ATAC website, most of the stations on the A and B lines are wheelchair accessible, while the stops for line C, which is still under construction, will all be accessible. Unfortunately, not all the stations are accessible, creating the issue of a lack of continuity for riders with disabilities. This significantly limits the ability of people experiencing disabilities to use the metro, since it does not allow for efficient travel. In a blog post written for the Huffington Post, Roman university student Fulvio Mazza, who experiences a mobility disability, describes his experience navigating through Rome. He notes that in his experience, although some stations do have lifts, they are not in working order or may need a staff member to use a key to activate it. Having lifts that need to be staff-operated reduces accessibility – to be truly accessible, the lifts must provide autonomy for users.
V. Cultural Perception of Disability in Italy
When Bernardo Bertolucci was unable to access the Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill (Figure 12), he mentioned the lack of accessibility to the current mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno. Alemanno responded, “Ma cosa crede, Bertolucci, che noi roviniamo una delle più belle piazze del mondo per mettere una pedana per disabili?” “But what do you think, Bertolucci, that we ruin one of the most beautiful squares of the world to put a footpath for the disabled?” In terms of spending, Italy spends about 1.5% of its GDP on disability benefits, putting the country at 17 out of 25 in the European Union. The spending is so low that according to researchers, people with disabilities in Italy are almost three times as likely to be at risk for poverty (Forgacs, 2014). The low spending and lack of enforcement of legislation supporting people with disabilities may be symptoms of a negative cultural attitude towards disability in Italy. Although I spent three weeks in Rome, I observed far fewer people in public using wheelchairs in Rome than in Seattle, which has a significantly smaller population. This is likely partly due to not only the lack of accessibility, but also the lack of effort put in to provide accessibility, “as if simple means did not exist to reduce these barriers, which are as much a matter of mental attitude as of urban physical structure’ (Piro and Fabbri, 1986). In a 2003 Newsweek article exploring the stigma of disability in Italy, one man says that the social stigma of disability in Italian families causes families to prevent those with disabilities from entering public view and participating in public life. This stigma surrounding disability is not only detrimental to the professional and social lives of those experiencing disability, but may also prevent them from being able to successfully advocate for their accessibility needs.
|Figure 14. Many shops have small curbs such as this one preventing accessibility.|
|Figure 15. Photo of inaccessible steps leading up to the Piazza Del Campidoglio. zucapaca.com.|
Although progress is being made, larger steps must certainly be taken to improve accessibility in Rome. To begin, a standard code for accessibility would provide a guide for ensuring access to the built environment for everybody. It would also provide an enforceable set of standards. This would reduce the inconsistency in accessibility, such as crosswalks with ramps on one side but not the other, and ensure that new construction takes accessibility into consideration, and older construction is updated to provide continuity of accessibility. We saw this problem in the construction of Rome’s metro system – although Metro Line C was being built with all stops being accessible, the older stops at connecting lines A and B were not all accessible. In addition to providing accessible features, the city of Rome and its transportation services must work to ensure that the features are actually all in working order and able to be used. This means not just installing lifts and using buses with kneeling systems and ramps, but making sure that these features are all in safe and working function.
In addition to changing legislature and creating a standard code, I believe it is also important to continue to work to reduce the social stigma surrounding disability that prevents those experiencing disabilities from participating in public life and being able to speak up and advocate for their needs. It is my hope that perhaps by improving accessibility in Rome, people experiencing disability will be able to confidently and safely navigate the city and engage more actively in their communities. And with their in increased participation in public life, perhaps the negative cultural views of disability will more quickly change and accessibility can finally become a priority. Not only will engineers consider accessibility first when designing roadways and sidewalks, but others will act with more respect: bus drivers will kneel the bus for senior citizens and people will reconsider parking their cars over pedestrian crosswalks.
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