How to Cross the Street in Rome

How To: Walking across a busy street in Italy's capital is no easy feat. It's an art, and as David Farley explains, you need some serious sprezzatura.

03.06.08 | 12:57 PM ET

imageThe situation: There’s a specter haunting the Eternal City. Italian prime minister Romano Prodi called it “diabolical” and the Vatican said it was “collective madness.” German families stand curbside, clutching one another’s hands like they’re about to take a collective plunge off a precipice; lumpy American tourists, frowning as they clench their Rick Steves guidebooks to their chests, keep their new white tennis shoes firmly planted on terra firma. Hop off the train at Termini station and wander into Rome’s historical center and you’ll know why so many tourists are stuck on the side of the street: traffic. More specifically, an endless, erratic stream of clunky Fiats, buzzing Vespas, and sleek Smart Cars, their drivers honking and swerving and gesturing and carrying on miles-long arguments with one another (or are they discussing last night’s Rome vs. Lazio game?).

The American assumption that pedestrians have the right of way and drivers will kindly stop when they see someone waiting at the crosswalk doesn’t apply here. There are 2.4 million cars to 2.5 million people in Rome, giving this beast of a city the highest per capita percentage of car ownership of any European capital. Until recently, the only requirement to driving a scooter was being 15 years old. No license needed. So, save for standing on the curb all day waiting for a break in the action—or for a miracle in the form of an always-traffic-stopping nun to materialize—the only thing to do is put your best foot forward. But there’s a technique to doing it.

Basic street crossing: It’s not like it is in others cities: New Yorkers wander off the curb with impunity, unconcerned about crosswalks or disgruntled cab drivers; Berliners wait until the little green crosswalk man tells them it’s okay to cross; and in Prague, where the speeding drivers don’t stop for anything save for a short skirt, stepping out in the street is about as smart as drinking the local absinthe.

For all its counterintuitive sense, crossing the street like a Roman can be summed up in one sentence: Step off the curb with a confident stride and the traffic will stop. But for the amateur street crosser, wait for a native to cross and then follow. Watch as they step off the curb with what appears to be reckless but suave abandon and, like Moses parting the Red Sea, the traffic magically stops. The best place to practice is the narrow, two-laned Via del Corso, which stretches through the historical center from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo.

Advanced street crossing: After following a local across the street several times, try going for it alone. In order to do it like a Roman (or to cross more “challenging” intersections), you’ve got to have one thing: sprezzatura. This hard-to-translate word pervades the Italian being. It’s the ability to make something hard look easy (who else but the Italians can make drinking coffee out of a tiny cup look cool?). In the case of crossing the street, it’s maintaining a cool composure as a swarm of scooters fly toward you. It’s your slow pace across the road as an army of automobiles come barreling forth at full speed. So, drape your jacket over your shoulders and step off the curb. Once you’ve successfully crossed the Via del Corso a few times, graduate up to the perpetually traffic-snarled Piazza Venezia. If you can get across this miasma of fast-moving metal amid the cacophony of loud honks, you can get anywhere in Rome. And if this doesn’t work, you can always pray for a nun.

What not to do: Crossing Frogger-style or darting like an antelope from one curb to the other doesn’t go down well in Rome. The first time I was in the city, faced with a never-ending stream of fast-moving traffic, I made a habit of sprinting across busy streets whenever there was a brief window of open pavement. Don’t do this. Besides confusing drivers, who time their trajectory to your stroll, running across the road is about as uncool and sprezzatura-rejecting as ordering “expresso” instead of espresso or wearing beaming white tennis shoes you bought just for your vacation. Romans don’t run. You shouldn’t either.

Photo by stanrandom via Flickr, (Creative Commons).


David Farley

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town and co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. Heís a contributing writer at AFAR magazine and his writing appears in the New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, and Gadling.com, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University.


28 Comments for How to Cross the Street in Rome

Tim Patterson 03.06.08 | 3:09 PM ET

Interesting.  In SE Asia, Frogger style is the only way to go.  It’s all about putting your faith in how much the drivers don’t want to hit you.  In Buenos Aires, I try to stick to the sidewalks and cross at intersections.  Maybe it’s the porteno Italian heritage that makes it such a dangerous city for pedestrians who stride with anything less than full confidence…

We published a how-to street crossing guide at BNT the other day and frankly some of the advice made me a little cross-eyed…hail a taxi, don’t get in, and run in front of it when it stops?  Recipe for a trip to the hospital in my mind.  But ah well, it’s all about provoking a discussion…

David 03.06.08 | 3:58 PM ET

This turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Rome! After a day of observing, I dove in, so to speak, with enthusiasm. In my experience though, the drivers don’t stop—they just alter their speed and/or trajectory to avoid you. That’s why it’s very important to keep a steady, predictable pace all the way across.

Ayun Halliday 03.06.08 | 5:07 PM ET

Actually “when David Farley isnít strutting across Roman streets, heís” doing something very wrong with the dog, but who am I to judge?

Well done, Farley! Stay sweet and don’t get squished.

farley 03.06.08 | 5:39 PM ET

Okay, let’s set the record straight here: google “I got cot f*#@ing the dog” (but writeout the f-word and be sure to use “cot” instead of the correct spelling) and see whose website you’re led to. Then you’ll know who’s really mistreating the dog. Ayun?

AppetiteforChina 03.06.08 | 9:58 PM ET

It’s not just an American assumption. While in Stockholm, I once had an encounter with a driver who refused to go until after I crossed. I insisted he had the right-of-way, but he just kept waving me to go. This lasted for about 5 minutes. It was a shock, coming from NYC. If they had a survey of best cities for pedestrians, Stockholm would take 1st place.

trionfale 03.07.08 | 4:26 AM ET

There’s always a logic - counterintuitive or not, wherever you go…After almost a lifetime in Italy, I would add here:
*always make eye contact with the driver of whatever; otherwise you DO risk getting run over. It does happen.
And remember:
*pedestrians ALWAYS have the right of way no matter where they are in the street. As a driver you’d never win a case against a wayward pedestrian….
David is right though, sprezzatura helps.  Read The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione to understand just about everything about surviving in Italy - in the !6th and 21st centuries!

Francesca 03.07.08 | 6:18 AM ET

I agree with one other tip…don’t make eye contact with the drivers.  If they see you look at them and know you’ve seen them, they won’t stop.  If you just keep walking, they will stop.  A non-native Roman told me this and it seems to work…plus you don’t see a lot of pedestrians knocked over by cars.

trionfale 03.07.08 | 6:33 AM ET

Well, I beg to differ with Francesca…my two children are alive and well so far (touch metal, here) thanks to this tip. Take a tip,too, from the elderly who tend to launch themselves with an arm or cane thrown out in warning. 
Unfortunately, I do see pedestrians hit; fortunately, usually not seriously.
In sum. there’s much more fun to be had in Rome than dodging traffic….

Ayun Halliday 03.07.08 | 9:52 AM ET

Just checked my website stats, and apparently there are not one but two google users who were busted in a flagrant, un-spell-checked, canine, booty call situation.

Which would be one for you and one for me, Farley, but why would I be googling whose location I already know how to find…? Is there a third musketeer?

Anyway, wish i was in Rome (eating Vietnamese food) RIGHT NOW!!!

Jane B. 03.07.08 | 11:29 PM ET

I can vouch for waiting to cross the street until there’s a phalanx of Italians.

On the fashion front, do NOT be tempted to wear your red slacks, like I did, to St. Peters Square unless you’re under 10.  You will feel like the opening scene of Schindlers List, like a beacon in the night, like your own private red light district.  You will STAND OUT.

Ling 03.16.08 | 12:36 PM ET

Following someone who looks like he knows what he’s doing is probably the best bet, when you’re crossing a road in a new place. I have this tendency to jump in and freeze in front of a car if I’m alone.

Harlan 03.18.08 | 10:35 PM ET

Street crossing is one of the great adventures of travel. My first experience with sprezzatura was in Naples. Absolutely terrifying. I didn’t think the traffic would ever stop, so, follow the locals. It’s all about watching the locals..and asking questions when possible. Saint Petersburg is interesting too. You must trust that nobody wants to hit you and maybe willing them not to doesn’t hurt either.

Claire Walter 03.19.08 | 8:27 PM ET

On busy streets in Bangkok, I’ve waited for a group of monks and crossed with them.

Claire @ http://travel-babel.blogspot.com

Vagabonderz 03.19.08 | 11:25 PM ET

I had my initiation in Italian street crossing in Naples…much worse than in Rome! And not only as a pedestrian, I braved the madness of the traffic all over Italy in a campervan. The roundabouts were, well, interesting!

But Italy is no comparison to SE Asia when it comes to crossing the street - I think the golden rule anywhere would be NO SUDDEN MOVEMENTS. Be predicatable and you should be alright.

trionfale 03.20.08 | 4:29 AM ET

Very fun this….try Catania at rush hours for a nice refresher - as pedestrian or driver - flashing stoplights at most (all?) intersections and roundabouts galore!

Sophie 03.22.08 | 12:20 PM ET

I can cross the street in Rome. That’s just NYC on steroids. But I was just in Bangalore and Hyderabad, where crossing major intersections is impossible. It simply cannot be done.

Ravi 03.24.08 | 11:03 AM ET

Sophie, crossing in Hyderabad may look difficult, but the advice of following a local is spot-on.  Stand just downstream of the local, and cross into the gap of traffic he/she has created.  Seems to work anywhere!  If no locals, though, one may be out of luck =)

Cory J Darling 05.02.08 | 3:51 PM ET

Nice! I’ve bookmarked it http://www.propeller.com/submit/checkstory :D

Scooter 05.10.08 | 6:14 PM ET

Isn’t it like this in all big cities? Remember that people are soft and cars are hard.

tubs 05.13.08 | 2:19 AM ET

I usually wait for a group of locals before i cross heavily trafficked roads too.

KevinS 05.26.08 | 4:12 PM ET

I didn’t realize that crossing the street in Rome was so complicated! Your article was both informative AND entertaining, thanks!

Scooter Tuning 07.14.08 | 9:57 PM ET

Never realised it was actually that bad in Rome, and never realised how many cars there where either, I wonder how many scooters there are then?

Handicap Scooters 07.21.08 | 12:27 AM ET

It would be interesting or maybe rather horrifying to see some accident statistics from Rome.

Kyle Park 07.27.08 | 5:28 PM ET

If walking is this dangerous, how do the people get around.  Is it mainly scooters?  I know they are very popular there, but I can’t believe the city governments aren’t all over this issue.  It seems it would have to really hurt tourism.

Best,
Kyle Park

Chris 09.03.08 | 11:18 AM ET

I disagree with trionfale in that you must stare down the Roman.  It’s just like the scene from Crocodile Dundee where he stared down the dogs, but ladies this will be the only time you will want to make eye contact with the natives.  Once they see you they will stop.  However, the more tricky navigation issue is the buzzing motorini (Vespas) as they make a habit of going behind the pedestrian, which to David’s point if you do not follow through with your crossing you could get clipped on your retreat. 

So in order to put your Roman sprezzatura on: 1) make your firm decision; 2) stare down the drivers; 3) cross with ease; 4) don’t retreat.

Oh, by the way, don’t try this in NYC….......

Happy Crossings,

Chris

trionfale 09.05.08 | 6:26 AM ET

I wouldn’t say “staring down” drivers has ever worked for me and that’s not what I suggested - eye contact of the friendly but decisive kind has always seemed enough.  Otherwise, no. 1, 3, 4 are right on, esp. no. 4 - retreating confuses everyone and messes up both the physics and the geometry of the art…

William Chen 10.12.08 | 6:27 AM ET

In Taiwan, you should always hold up your hands and try to run to the other side of the street because the streets here are very chaotic. Many foreigners in Taiwan (Americans, Europeans) have troubles crossing the streets because the cars and scooters do not stop and even cross when there is red light!

Mike Pink 11.13.08 | 9:26 AM ET

I’d use the technique I developed in Vietnam! Never run, and just stare at the drivers as you walk across! (silently saying a small prayer each time)...

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.