Engineering Rome

Disability Accessiblity in Modern Roman Transportation

I. Introduction

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 1. Map of 14 Rioni of Rome. Wikipedia.

Figure 2. Red highlighted area shows Municipio I within city of Rome's boundaries. 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
Male 0.15 0.14 0.20 0.17 0.55 0.69 1.09 1.98 3.41 8.27 0.83
Female 0.08 0.12 0.14 0.21 0.44 1.11 3.25 4.24 6.78 10.35 1.70
Total 0.12 0.13 0.17 0.19 0.50 0.90 2.24 3.22 5.39 9.65 1.28

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).

uneven sampietrini.jpg
Figure 3. Close up of sampietrini showing unevenness of surface.

sampietrini pothole.jpg
Figure 4. Missing sampietrini cobblestones creating a large pothole.

pedestrian sidewalk.jpg
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.