Engineering Rome

Transportation & Traffic Control in Venice

by Rebecca Lilliquist
Photos are by author unless otherwise stated
Venice, Italy is a city intrinsically tied to water. Perched on a lagoon (see Figure 1) with its palaces, churches, and historic buildings rising directly from teal blue waters, Venice is notable as an historic center of art, music, culture, and international trade. But perhaps the most notable thing about Venice is its famous canals, great and small, that lace between buildings and tie the city together. Water has been the lifeblood of Venice, both connecting it to the world and its inhabitants to each other.

Figure 1: Aerial view of Venice (Yann Arthus-Bertrand, n.d)

This paper describes and analyzes multiple aspects of transportation and traffic solutions in the historic city center of Venice. I focus specifically on the unique parts of transportation in Venice due to its waterborne nature. This paper also discusses several specific engineering projects that address Venice’s transportation problems, as well a possible future solutions. Additionally, as a recent visitor to Venice, I present supplementary personal observations of public transportation and the effectiveness of traffic control implementation.Once inside the .

Figure 2: Congestion in Venice’s Grand Canal
Figure 3: View of the Grand Canal from above


Venice flourished first and foremost as a trading city. Once one of the greatest trading powers in European history, Venice acted as a significant European maritime port and as one end of the Silk Road. From about the 9th century through its peak in the 14th century and a few centuries beyond, Venice used its location and naval prowess to amass influence and wealth from around the world. For example, through offering use of their considerable naval power, Venice was able to gain independence from the Byzantine Empire while maintaining a trading relationship with it (“Venice”, UNESCO, n.d). Venice’s history and relationship with long-distance trading and maritime commerce is complex, but the history of its internal waterways is just as rich and complex.

For centuries the people and visitors of Venice relied on human powered boats such as rowboats and gondolas to navigate the canals. This gondola-driven society lasted well into the 19th century, until the advent of a new type of boat. In the 1880’s the steam powered boat, the vaporetti, came to Venice, bringing a new and quicker means of transportation to the city’s inhabitants. In the 1950’s gas powered motor boats came to Venice, again increasing the speed and efficiency of water transportation (Carbonneau, 2017). Since the advent of motor boats, rowboats have become virtually extinct within the Venetian canals. Today, the only human-powered boats are gondolas, and they are used almost exclusively by tourists. Gondolas have become a visual reminder of the type of boats that used to roam and dominate the canals.

Venice’s unique situation

Although some transportation considerations remain the same in Venice as in any other busy city, many are different. Traffic is as much of an issue here as elsewhere; the narrow streets and canals become increasingly congested as more tourists come to the city. The nearly 150 canals of the historic city center are crowded with many different types and sizes of boats, not always existing harmoniously. much like roads, and speed limits and speed enforcement are as much of an issue as for any busy city. However, common traffic regulation systems such as lanes, stop lights, and stop signs are almost non-existent along Venice’s canals. In most cities, more roads and other accommodations could be made to make the city easier to traverse. Venice does not have this luxury, as there is little to no room for expansion due to historic canals and buildings. Traffic has grown over the years and some channels may be traversed by more than 1000 vehicles a day (Broggi, 2012).

Venice is also a unique situation because, unlike most major cities, the resident population is actually dropping and is currently below 55,000 (see Figure 4). However, the average number of tourists in Venice in 2013 was 57,430 per day, with peaks of up to 90,000 in the summer; Venice is a city both dependent on and suffocated by the tourism industry (Blanco, 2014). Predictably, traffic effects are exacerbated in places where a significant portion of the population is not local, and Venice is an extreme-case example of that phenomenon (Bennett, n.d). According to “Impacts of Tourism”, tourists slow down Venetian’s walking speed by approximately 16%. While Venice’s resident population is shrinking, its tourism population has grown to dominate the city. Additionally, all of Venice’s cargo must be , creating significant motor boat traffic volume navigating the canals, with 50% of the goods estimated to be for tourists (Blanco, 2014).

Figure 4: The dropping population of Venice (Blanco, 2014)

Venice’s traffic patterns are also different than most cities of its size. Traffic patterns are largely characterized by origin and destination. Weekday traffic in most major cities depends heavily on the commute to and from work, while afternoon and weekend traffic is determined more by leisure and and consumer activities (Carbonneau, 2007). However Venice’s traffic follows significantly different patterns. To begin with, most residents commute to work by foot or on public transportation such as the vaporetti. Commuters do not add significantly to the volume of boat traffic, and so commuters do not factor into the traffic and congestion as heavily as they do in other cities. The traffic that fits the origin-destination model is the delivery of goods to stores throughout the city, which accounts for 36% of the water traffic in Venice. Venice’s traffic depends heavily on tourist transportation, more so than most major cities; turismo boats account for 40% of the total traffic (Carbonneau, 2007). Peak traffic times for visitors do not follow the before- and after-work pattern.

II. Types of boats in Venice

Maritime traffic in Venice consists of different types of boats being used for many different purposes. There are several options for local and tourists alike to traverse the canals. The most prevalent form of public transport is the vaporetti— Venetian water buses. Water taxis, Alilaguna (airport buses) and traghetto (exclusively for canal crossing) are other transportation options available to locals and tourists alike. Private motor boats are a minor element in traffic volume, which is quite different than in road-based cities, where private cars predominate. Personal boats are not nearly as common as personal cars in other cities, in large part because of the high price of mooring. Other types of boats include ambulance boats, police boats. Lastly, and most intrinsically woven into Italy’s history, is the gondola. Gondolas are now almost exclusively used by tourists for city tours. They also are the only major type of boat on the canals that are not motorized.


The vaporetti, Venice’s water bus system, are the city’s primary form of public transportation. The transit agency ACTV operates 160 water buses to take passengers along the main canals, around the perimeter of Venice, and to nearby islands such as Murano. Routes 1 and 2 snake through the grand canal, while the 4.1 and the 4.2 circle the combined islands of Venice. (See Figure 5 for a complete routes and service of the vaporetti.) Regardless, many Venetians use this water bus system to commute to and from work.’

Figure 5: Transit map of the Vaporetti routes


Many logistics of the vaporetto system are similar to any bus or metro system. After buying your ticket ahead of time, you must “tap on” at the vaporetto station before you board the boat by touching your ticket to a sensor that activates it. The vaporetto stop (see Figure 6) is a dock onto which the vaporetti dock and tie up to allow people to load and unload. Water bus users must remain flexible and alert; routes are subject to both sudden changes and seasonal variation. During Acqua Alta (especially high tides that flood the city) most vaporetti continue to run but some may be on restricted service if they can’t fit under a bridge or if the station is too covered in the tide, such as seen in Figure 7. Luckily for tourists, Acqua Alta generally only occurs late Autumn to early Spring. so that those concerned about consequent route changes can look ahead. The seasonal variation occurs because of Venice’s heavy need for tourist routes only during peak tourist season– June through August (Steves, 2007).

Figure 6: A vaporetto stop
Figure 7: A swamped vaporetto stop during Acqua Alta (De Rossi)

Personal experience

In my personal experience the vaporetti were a very pleasant way to get around– for a tourist with nowhere to be in a hurry. By the nature of the vehicle and the winding canals, the vaporetti are not as fast as most city buses. Unlike public transportation in Rome, they reliably ran according to schedule. Sometimes passengers experience pretty rough docking or other sudden jolts as the water bus drivers attempt to slide into the vaporetto stop. In 2013 the mayor of Venice began pushing for bow thrusters to be installed in the water bus fleet, allowing for easier maneuvering and faster stops if needed (Kington, 2013). Lastly, they were almost always very crowded, which makes sense; the vaporetti system transports over 95 million passengers annually (Goncalves, n.d).

Other transport

Other public transportation options include the Alilaguna and the traghetto. The Aliguna are airport boats that provide transportation to and from Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport. The traghetti are cheap and quick gondolas that give rides across the Grand Canal for 2 euros– 75 cents for locals (Steves, 2007). Until 1854, the Ponte di Rialto was the only bridge to cross the Grand Canal. Currently there are still only four bridges across the canal’s 2.5 mile length and so the traghetti are cheap and convenient alternatives to bridges (Imboden, 2017). Traghetti are large, undecorated gondolas rowed by two oarsmen and there are seven traghetto piers (see Figure 9) along the stretch of the Grand Canal.

Water taxis account for about 25% of the traffic volume, although they are relatively expensive and used largely by tourists (Goncalves, n.d). Water taxis, which are available throughout the city at 13 different stands, are significantly more convenient than the vaporetti in that they operate 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, offer point-to-point service, and move at higher speeds. A typical Venetian taxi boat has the ability to seat around ten to eighteen passengers. The individual taxi drivers are grouped together into consortiums which are the regulated by the Provincial di Venezia Settore Mobilita e Transporti (Bennett, n.d). This way the city ensures that each consortium receives an equal share of taxi business.

Other boats on the canal include public service boats like police boats and ambulances, garbage collection, and cargo/ goods delivery boats. Boats in Venice serve the many purposes that cars and trucks do in most cities.

Figure 8: A taxi boat
Figure 9: A traghetto stop

III. Environmental and safety impacts

Despite having a unique traffic system, Venice is certainly not exempt from traffic-related pollution and safety problems. Along with congestion and air pollution, water traffic also produces water pollution and moto ondoso. Moto ondoso— wave motion– is a unique problem to Venice and is a major factor in the destruction of canal walls. Both wave pollution and water pollution have a major effect on not just the lagoon canals of Venice but also the surrounding lagoon ecosystem (Freemantle 2000). Since motor boats were introduced into Venice’s canals they have replaced rowboats as a faster and more efficient means to transport people and goods. But along with this technological development has come pollution, safety concerns, and significant environmental problems.

Traffic and safety concerns are exacerbated in narrow canals. Within narrow canals such as the one shown in Figure 10, boats create wakes in closer proximity to canal and building walls, meaning damage due to moto ondoso within these smaller channels can be just as bad as damage along the grand canal despite slower speeds. I observed most boats going significantly slower in smaller canals, as well as only smaller boats navigating these narrow waterways. This was mainly out of necessity than any regulatory reasons, so I also observed individual boat drivers occasionally speeding close past canal walls and other boats. This creates extremely disruptive wakes that harm canal walls and disrupt other boats sharing the waters with them.

Figure 10: Narrow Venetian canals (Lauren Feldmann, 2017)
Figure 11: Unoccupied first floors due to water damage

In a study conducted by students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, “Venetian Boat Traffic and Its Environmental Effects”, it was determined that boat traffic volume is not necessarily proportional to the amount of pollution in any given area. For example, the pollution of a gondola is significantly different than the pollution of a vaporetti. The gondolas lack of motor and subsequent slow speed means they create virtually no turbulence through the water and hardly contribute to the wake pollution or water pollution. Figure 12 shows their findings regarding percentage contribution for various boat classes to total traffic versus percentage contribution to moto ondoso.

Figure 12: Traffic contribution vs moto ondoso contribution. Merci refers to goods (delivery boats) and diporto refers to pleasure (private) boats.

Moto ondosoMoto ondoso, literally meaning “wave motion” in Italian, refers to the ongoing environmental problem of boat wakes throughout the Venetian canals. Historically speaking, moto ondoso is a relatively new phenomenon, occurring since the introduction of gas powered boats into the canals in the 1950s. Turbulence and wake force from motor boats in the canals and surrounding lagoon have caused significant damage to buildings and canal walls (Broggi, 2012). Constant and persistent wake force against walls causes them to deteriorate, destabilizing buildings throughout all of Venice. There are varying opinions on how much damage is caused by moto ondoso, but most can agree that at least 50% of wall damage can be attributed to moto ondoso (Bennett, n.d).


Combating the negative effects of a phenomenon begins with an understanding of the phenomenon. There have been a few projects to better categorize and track Venice’s in hopes of using this information for traffic control that more effectively addresses the threat of moto ondoso. As you can see in Figure 13, the amount of energy released by each boat into the canal increases exponentially as boat speed increases.

Figure 13: Wake amplitude vs boat speed (Carbonneau, 2007)

In 2002, students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute created a moto ondoso index to relate boat speed to the energy in the wake. From this they were able to create the gradient map in Figure 14. They began by classifying 21 different types of boats on Venice’s canals. Each type contributes differently to wake pollution. In order to determine the different amount of wake pollution produced by each boat they measured wake period, wavelength, and amplitude. Then they observed the amount of boats and speed of boats at many different traffic count locations throughout the city.

Figure 14: Moto ondoso gradient map (Carbonneau, 2007)

In order to produce a quantitative value of the moto ondoso at each traffic count location they used the following equation:

M is the total moto ondoso at that traffic location. Ei is the average energy emitted by boat type ‘i’ at the boat’s average velocity and Bi is the total number of boats of type ‘i’ counted at each station. By multiplying Bi and Ei they obtained the total amount of moto ondoso produced by each boat type at each count location. Then, by summing the total values for boat types 1 through 21 they were able to obtain the total moto ondoso produced at each traffic count location throughout the canal. As previously mentioned, the wake amplitude increases exponentially and not linearly as speed increases, meaning this index does not perfectly capture the reality of wake created at each location. That said, this index is an effective tool for estimating moto ondoso levels without an ureasonable level of observation.

Air/ water pollution
Water pollution is another serious concern both within Venice and the surrounding lagoon and ecosystem. Venice’s downtown canals are contaminated with a mix of dioxins from urban sources, such as urban waste, and hydrocarbons from boat engine emissions. Motorboat traffic also causes the resuspension of sediment within the canals, combining with the dioxins and engine emissions to create a murky, contaminated mix (Freemantle, 2000). Any decrease in boat traffic or idling times would help decrease the water pollution of the lagoon, even if only by a little.

Public safety issues
Regardless of the gravity of the environmental and pollution problems, other public safety concerns have been more significant factors causing people to call for tougher traffic and speed regulations/ enforcement. On August 17th, 2013, a deadly crash occurred between a gondola with German tourists and a vaporetto. Joachim Vogel, 50, a German professor of criminal law, was taking a tour with his wife and three children when their gondola was crushed against a dock by a reversing vaporetto. Vogel died later that day from resulting injuries (Kington, 2013). Reaching international news and dominating local discussion, this incident highlighted the growing issue of vehicular crashes and the importance of traffic “rules of the road”.

The incident prompted the Venice’s mayor to propose 26 new safety measures for traffic within Venice’s city center (Squires, 2013). Among measures suggested were a few safety regulations that might seem surprising that they were not already in place. Use of mobile phones while steering any vessel, motorized or man-powered, became prohibited. Unauthorized docks and piers that have been constructed on the sides of the canals were removed to create more space for boats to maneuver and pass each other. Additionally, barges carrying commercial goods were restricted within in the canals to between 4am and midmorning. Only after that time of day are gondolas now allowed to take to the canals with their tourists (Bennett, n.d). A complete translation of these 26 new safety measures can be found in Appendix C of “Boats are Waking me Crazy: An Analysis of Boat Traffic and Moto Ondoso in Venice”.

IV. Maritime traffic control

The goals of traffic management are to “minimize cost, act environmentally, minimize public spending, improve quality of life, increase efficiency, and enhance safety” (Hasan, 1999). Traffic control is a crucial aspect of saving time and money within any large city. Within the watery streets of Venice there is an additional aspect to consider: traffic control is increasingly necessary to protect the very walls and canals that the city stands upon.

Speed limits

Speed limits are based on two things in Venice: location and type of boat. Setting speed limits by boat type is to prevent boats with high wake hulls from causing more wake damage. Unless otherwise specified, there are three speed limit “locations” within Venice and the surrounding lagoon (“Procedure: Tender Use”, n.d). The maximum speed limit anywhere in the lagoon is 20 km/hr. Within Venice and the historical city center, the speed limit is 11 km/hr. The maximum speed limit within the Grand Canal and smaller, internal canals is 5-7 km/hr, depending on the canal size. In the 2002 WPI study it was determined that only 3% of boats actually abided by the posted speed limits. In fact, the average speed of boats within the canals was recorded to be 12 km/hr, which is 5-7 km/hr over the speed limit. See Figure 15 for the recorded speeds of boats in the inner canals in 2002. Therefore, speed limits proved only minimally effective without monitoring or enforcing said speed limits.

Figure 15: Boat speeds in the canal (Bennett, n.d)

Monitoring systems

Traffic studies are the crucial foundation of meaningful traffic analysis. They allow city officials to make informed decisions about traffic regulation. The Venetian Municipal Authorities have been implementing traffic monitoring systems since the 1990’s, after it became clear that speed limits and behavior rules were not being followed or enforced sufficiently. In order to mitigate the negative effects of traffic authorities needed to be able to more effectively enforce already existing rules. Although there are police boats (see Figure 16) monitoring the canals, continuous and autonomous monitoring was determined to be a necessary supplementary strategy. Boat speeds can be estimated by analyzing data from a radar gun, but in Venice’s case this would be more expensive than other solutions like cameras (Broggi, 2012).

Figure 16: Police boat (McBride, 2014)
Figure 17: Survey cell cameras (Bloisi, 2007)

Waterbus GPS

In the 1990’s the public vaporetto fleet was equipped with GPS satellite receivers, so that a simple speed- and trajectory-monitoring system could be put in place. These GPS devices enabled the ACTV public transport operations center to monitor their public bus fleet to assure they were following all routes and speed limits. In more recent years the municipal police control center was integrated with the ACTV operations center. The development of the software required for this integration was completed in 2007 and the whole project was completed by 2009. Both the municipal police center and the ACTV center are dedicated to specific traffic sub-systems, and so a new joint center was created for overall management of the water transport system. According to a report published in Eltis, “Satellite control for water PT services in Venice”, this integration resulted in better optimization and reduction of water traffic, management of individual transport services in the Venice lagoon, and overall improvement in navigation for water public transport services.


In the years 2004-2005 GPS use expanded, and a modern wide-range general fleet control system called SALOMON was created. SALOMON uses on-board equipment to constantly track boat position with greater precision, while holding a complete map of the waterways with their respective speed limits. A signal is immediately issued to the boat driver when the speed detected by the on-board Differential GPS receiver exceeds the relevant speed limit. The SALOMON system has proven very effective wherever implemented. However, because of the resources needed to install navigation units on each boat, its use is currently limited to the major resident fleets only (Bloisi, 2007).

The Municipal Administration took another step forward with the Automatic Remote Grand Canal Observation System (ARGOS) project, launched in 2006. Using cameras and automated vision technology, ARGOS provides a unified view of the whole Grand Canal waterway for monitoring and management. In addition, developers of this project used the precise GPS positioning data produced by the boats equipped with SALOMON equipment for the ARGOS cameras automatic geometric calibration component. The ARGOS system covers the extent of the Grand Canal, a waterway of about 6 km length and 80 to 150 m width, through observation posts called survey cells (shown in Figure 17.) Each survey cell is composed of slightly overlapping three cameras resulting in an overall view field of about 250-300 meters end to end. Using tracking algorithms, the system is able to track the position, speed, and direction of each boat. The Venice Municipal Authorities are able to use this information to track the flow, congestion, and speed of the traffic in the Grand Canal. The system also has event detection for specific violations: speed limit infringement, wrong direction in one way lanes, and forbidden stops (Bloisi, 2007).

V. Analysis and future considerations

Since the turn of the century significant progress has been done in Venice by various organizations to monitor water transportation and take steps to improve the efficiency, increase safety, and minimize environmental impact. However, work still remains to reach a complete solution to Venice’s transportation and traffic issues. For example, students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute developed some ideas for some improvements in their paper “Boats Are Waking Me Crazy: An Analysis of Boat Traffic and Moto Ondodo in Venice”. They published a plan for several changes to better the transportation system in Venice. In total, if all of their suggestions were implemented, the team calculated that moto ondoso in the canals would be reduced by 57%. Below is a summary of their suggestions that I believe are effective and realistic courses of action.

The main solution outlined in “Boats Are Waking Me Crazy” was a proposed re-engineering of taxi and cargo systems. The focus on these two types of boat traffic makes sense. Forty-six percent of all boast in Venice are taxis or public transport, and cargo boats make up another 36% of Venice’s water traffic (Broggi, 2012). Any inefficiency in the taxi boat or cargo boat traffic will have proportional impacts on congestion and the environment.

The most promising recommendation involved cutting down on the time taxis spend traveling without passengers. In the current system, a taxi who picks up a passenger at a taxi stand must return to that particular taxi stand after each trip in order to pick up the next passenger, resulting in taxis spending an estimated 33% of their time with no passengers. The taxi dispatch system could be remodeled to allow taxis to pick up passengers near where they drop off other passengers, instead of going back to their original taxi stand. It was estimated that this change alone would result in a reduction of moto ondoso by 14%.

Figure 18: Cargo routes in current system
Figure 19: Cargo routes in proposed zone solution

The current cargo system uses 96 boats to the island of San Luca, yet analysis revealed that only 3 are necessary (Accosta, 2006). This remarkable finding is just one example of the inefficiency of the current delivery system. In 2001, the Cargo Re-Engineering Project recommended that items be delivered by destination instead of by item. In 2003 a team of students and faculty from Worcester Polytechnic Institute developed a plan to implement this recommendation. In order to deliver by destination, Venice could be divided into delivery zones, with each zone assigned the appropriate number of boats. The goal of these zones is to avoid unnecessary travel between islands, known as “island hopping”. The resulting multitude of boat paths can be seen in Figure 19, compared to the previous number of boat paths seen in Figure 18. With the delivery by destination system, the same goods could be delivered around the island of Venice while traveling 86% shorter distance. Similar reductions could be achieved across the board with fewer boat repairs, shorter delivery times, reduced costs, etc.

Physical changes to boats

This last major suggestion is aimed at reducing wake pollution through redesign of boat hulls and engines. The M-Hull is a type of low-wake hull shape designed by the Mangia Onda (translated as “Wake Eater”) Company. The new hull is markedly different from the tradition hull as seen in Figure 20 and reduces wake energy by forcing the wake produced by the center section back under the boat instead of releasing it out to the sides. This accomplishes two things. First, it reduced dispersed wake, reducing damaging waves. Secondly, as the wake is forced back under the boat, it is “condensed into spiraling channels” of water which help to lift the boat further out of the water, reducing displacement and further reducing the moto ondoso created (Bennett, n.d). Additionally, the type of engine can also change the wake pollution created. The largest benefit of hybrid and electric engines is that they produce no waves while idling, unlike a typical gas engine.

Figure 20: M-hull shape (Bennett, n.d)


If more people knew about the serious environmental impacts of waterborne traffic I believe they would be more inclined to follow rules and regulations like speed limits. Moto ondoso is a serious problem threatening the very foundation of Venice, and awareness might be able to increase conscientious commuters. Additionally, stricter enforcement of existing rules could help to discourage people from damaging/ dangerous behaviors. Lastly, The eco-friendly vaporetto will give off much lower levels of atmospheric emissions as well as saving on fuel usage (“Venice’s Canal Delivery Traffic to be Cut 90% with WPI Plan”, 2004).

For a city known for its beautiful waters, Venice has a more complicated relationship with water than it appears on the surface. Water is transportation, economics, public safety, public works, infrastructure, and tourism all rolled into one. It must be managed comprehensively and understood at each of these levels. The canals are historical and famous, but they are also a serious part of a modern city.


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