I like to go for bike rides early Sunday morning, when the city is quiet and relatively traffic free. Biking makes me feel free and even in the usual chaos of Rome it has a calming effect, compared to waiting for a bus or, worse, searching for a parking spot.
But it conversely makes me angry because it’s hard to bike 100 meters without encountering acts of incivility, usually on the part of motorists. Even when I tell myself, again and again, that fixating on these problems doesn’t solve them, it’s really hard to practice what I preach.
So today I went out with a goal in mind, to see past the problems to the city which persists despite them. Without really planning it, this turned into a project to photograph the city without cars. This is the opposite of what I often do, photographing the illegal presence of cars in pedestrian space to report or denounce; it turned out to be a bit more difficult. But on a Sunday morning, with shops and city offices closed, many streets and squares were pleasantly car-free. I’ve often used stills from neo-realist films in talks to show a Rome which functioned with little automotive traffic, bustling with trams, buses, bikers and pedestrians. And I’ve pointed out how certain “emergencies” such as political demonstrations or last month’s torrential rains create defacto car-free zones. But today I looked at the everyday city for glimpses of the promise of car-free urban space.
As I pedaled through the sleepy early-morning city, through Trastevere, across Ponte Sisto to Via Giulia, across to Piazza del Orologio and northward to Piazza del Popolo, I kept my eyes peeled for any vista which could be captured devoid of automobiles. It became a sort of game. Was there a vantage point from which Piazza Fontanella Borghese really was a pedestrian space (as the posted signs indicate)? Could I frame a view of the Pantheon with no cars (with some creative use of the fountain to mask the souvenir truck)? I was not going to fall back on photoshop (that’s another project).
Sadly, it would have been much easier to capture views of incivility; cars parked on sidewalks, in pedestrian zones, blocking wheelchair ramps, etc. etc. There’s no challenge in uncovering such violations, so rampant in Rome to have become boring. Some streets that I had assumed I could photograph, such as Via Margutta or Via Condotti, were cluttered with cars. But Piazza del Popolo lived up to its claim as car-free, as did much of the Villa Borghese park. Piazza di Spagna and the Trevi Fountain were almost car-free, except the presence of police cars (no comment). Many squares outside government offices, usually cluttered with illegally parked cars (guess whose), were empty on Sunday morning.
I ended my ride at Via dei Fori Imperiali, the grand traffic artery which is closed to cars every Sunday from 9:00 am. The city was starting to wake up which meant engine noise, whizzing cars, angry drivers who slipped onto the Fori Imperiali just before the barricades went up honking as they sped through the pedestrian zone towards the Colosseum. Roma, you gotta love it.
Back in the studio I assembled my photos. Given the time of day there are few people in the shots, so the image is a bit post-apocalyptic, but imagine this city with residents and tourists, bikers, children, seniors, all strolling or cycling safely through the quiet streets, breathing clean air. If you can envision it, it can happen.