All Roads Lead to Congestion

by Eric Morris

Traffic congestion is hardly the unique product of the automobile; in fact, it’s a headache that has plagued man all the way back to ancient Rome. A number of factors intertwined to make that city a traffic nightmare. First, while there is considerable debate among historians about the density of Rome, in all likelihood it equaled and perhaps surpassed that of the very densest cities of today. All of those people meant lots of traffic. Moreover, the street network had grown organically in the “cowpath” manner with little conscious planning, resulting in twisting and remarkably narrow streets, with only the rare major thoroughfare being wide enough for two carts to pass each other. Also, in a city with great crowding and limited public space, the streets were the site of many non-transportation activities like merchants selling their wares from carts and even school classes. Moreover, stones placed in the roads so that pedestrians could cross without stepping in the muck presented obstacles for carts.

The ancient equivalents of transportation planners and engineers did their best to overcome these problems. Julius Caesar in particular took an active interest. He banned most carts and carriages (except those used for certain official purposes) from the city for the first ten hours of the day. This command-and-control regulatory approach is still being attempted today; witness Beijing, which is putting draconian limits on car registrations. However, people then and now have ways of avoiding the best-intentioned regulations. In Rome’s case the daytime traffic ban merely shifted congestion; at dusk anarchy reigned as the streets were packed with a chaos of carts going about their business. Moreover, such rules would ultimately prove impossible to enforce. Roman regulations requiring travelers to dismount and walk through city limits were passed and re-passed by emperors, which historians take as a sign that they were ineffective. In addition, more and more types of travelers were exempted from this ban as the wealthy and powerful secured exceptions. Beijing has fared little better with command-and-control, as savvy auto owners have taken to registering their vehicles in nearby provinces, or buying inexpensive used cars for their license plates.

In an early form of traffic calming, the Romans blocked off certain streets from vehicular travel by means of stone posts in the roadway. They also resorted to a system of one-way streets, another modern remedy for congestion. One-way traffic is evident from wheel ruts in Pompeii, but it is unclear whether this system was formally established and enforced by the municipal government, or informal, relying wholly on drivers sending slaves or children ahead of the vehicle to clang bells and hold back traffic ahead until the cart had passed. Like planners two millennia later, who responded to rising auto traffic by turning streets from the multi-use spaces of the 19th century to the auto-only traffic conduits of the 20th, in A.D. 92 the Emperor Domitian forbade merchants from setting up their stalls in the streets to ease traffic flow.

Ultimately, given the long period over which measures were passed, it seems the Romans had limited success taming congestion. Unfortunately, 2,000 years later, we are trying many of the same solutions—and having just as much success. Since Roman times we have gone to the moon, split the atom, and produced artificial intelligence. But we seem little closer to solving the problem of traffic congestion than they were.

For further reading, see this from archeologist Eric Poehler, this from Kenneth D. Matthew Jr. and this from Cornelius van Tilburg.

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