Rome’s Transit Woes: A Journey Through the Eternal City’s Broken System 

With a fleet of buses, trams, and metro lines, the eternal city has found itself with a reputation for its… well, eternal commutes.

Student Commentary

By Thomas Loynd / Contributor | | Edited by Gioia Kunst

Photo by Federico Enni on Unsplash.

If you’ve heard criticism about Rome being a dysfunctional city, it’s possible that the functionality of its public transportation system is to blame. With a fleet of buses, trams, and metro lines, the eternal city has found itself with a reputation for its..well, eternal commutes. So who’s behind Rome’s public transport? You’ve probably seen the red and white logo on buses, tube trains, and trams with the infamous abbreviation: ATAC. While I like to joke that these letters stand for “Awful Transportation and Chaos”, they actually stand for Agenzia del trasporto autoferrotranviario del Comune di Roma, which is the public transport company responsible for managing and operating the public transportation system in Italy’s capital city. 

To preempt any accusations of my unwarranted criticism towards ATAC, it’s worth noting that the company hardly has an exemplary reputation. Quite the opposite actually, ask any Roman what they think of ATAC and then tell me how it goes. If someone responds “ATAC is the best!” come find me on campus and I’ll buy you a coffee. The reality is that ATAC has faced numerous challenges over the years, including (but certainly not limited to) complaints about poor service, unreliable schedules, and overcrowding of its vehicles. Yet it continues to be used by millions of Romans each day—although that’s probably because finding a parking spot in Rome is like trying to find a snowflake in the Sahara. That being said, having completed almost two years as a cardholder with ATAC, and with hundreds of daily commutes under my belt, I thought it would be entertaining to compile my personal observations of my experiences with ATAC’s public transportation system. In doing this, I don’t want to come across as overly negative, so I’ll strive to remain unbiased. Therefore in the name of fairness, I will begin by pointing out some of the positive or more impressive aspects of commuting with ATAC.

Number one: A yearly membership card for access to the entire system in Rome (bus, metro, trams) will cost you 250 Euros, well below the average cost of an annual transport pass in European cities, which is approximately €500-700 per year. However, once you consider that incomes vary considerably across different European countries, this may not warrant a spot in the “impressive” category, but since I’m desperate to nominate a positive I’m going to bring the London Tube to help. The cheapest yearly membership for the world famous underground, which strictly covers the central “Zone 1” is £1,628, or roughly 1,800 Euros. Yes, I realize that income varies in London as well, and I also know that Rome has a significantly less intricate transport web (and as I’ve learned the hard way, you get what you pay for) — but roughly 1,550 Euros saved is always a win. Think about it, that’s like 650 gelatos… well anyways, I can now say I’ve not been completely critical in this article. Regrettably, that does conclude the positives list, and we must now address the less impressive aspects, where I find myself asking, where do I begin? 

Since I’ve just taken a dig at the London underground’s incredibly high costs, I’ll introduce the first problem with a personal anecdote about my experience using public transportation in London: it was perfect. The metros I rode on were clean, on schedule, and frequent. The buses were the same, there was always available seating and people entered from the front and exited at the back, and I even found myself charging my phone thanks to USB ports equipped on every seat — now that’s impressive. Shortly after that visit, a friend of mine who lives in Rome shared with me a photo via text message about a sign that had been placed on the inside doors of an ATAC bus. It read: “i campanelli non funzionano, urlare fermata”: “request stop buttons broken: yell stop”. If there was any such thing as a stark reminder that I was back in Rome, it was this. Enter problem number one: infrastructure. 

The use of old infrastructure seems to be a trend in Rome, with the average age of the fleet of the buses being around 10 years old, and 15 years old for the metro.The use of older buses and metro trains bring a barrage of problems, for example in 2017 twenty-two buses exploded into flames, almost all of which were too old. You’ve probably guessed it already, but there are no USB charging ports here, heck, just be grateful the request-a-stop button works, and while in recent years ATAC has taken the initiative to flush out the oldies in their fleet of buses and metro trains, the poorly maintained and aging fleets still make up a large part of their system. Therefore, riding the buses can be a bit of a gamble — if you’re fortunate, you’ll catch a ride on a brand new Mercedes Citaro or an acceptable-condition Iveco, but you’ll immediately recognize when you’re about to board a decrepit old veteran. Firstly, you’ll notice that the LED panel at the front of the bus that regularly displays the route number is broken, so instead you’ll find a standard 8.5×11 inch sheet of printer paper containing the bus number in Times New Roman font taped to the front windshield like a post-it note. Upon entering the bus and its fine display of interior street art (i.e. graffiti), you might begin to worry the driver has got it stuck in second gear, but that’s before you realize it’s just the engine on its last breaths. In addition, cruising over 10 mph on Sanpietrini cobblestones will sound like the inside of a toolbox that’s been pushed down the stairs, with the nuts and bolts holding the bus together hanging on for their lives with each bump in the road. Unfortunately, these buses also lack weather resistance, so if it’s a rainy day then you may want to keep your umbrella open, as many of them leak from the inside. And you can forget about air conditioning in the summer — prepare for a mobile sauna experience. 

The issues with ATAC however run much deeper than just the physical integrity of the metro lines and buses. The fact of the matter is that having access to USB charging ports is a privilege, and suffering at the expense of a bus that belong in a museum is no fun, but one could argue that the old infrastructure wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for the real problem poisoning the entire system: inefficiency.

Problem number two is the one causing the stories you’ve heard before: the long wait times, the overcrowding, the unreliability. A large part of this comes down to limited frequency, a problem that spreads havoc on the metro and buses alike. According to data from popular travel planner app Moovit, travelers wait an average of 20 minutes per trip in Rome for a metro, tram or train to arrive — making it the slowest of any European capital surveyed. Punctuality? You can forget it. Even the live-trackers placed at bus stops have lost credibility. If it says 5 minutes, it could be 10, or worse yet, it might not show up at all. 

Naturally, after hearing the headaches of the buses, one would hope the metro system could offer a glimmer of hope. I’m here to tell you that they aren’t much better. Rome has three metro lines, A, B, and a fairly disjointed C. Many Romans will complain that these three lines fail to adequately serve all of Rome — although the painfully slow buses cover the ground the metros don’t. Metro A is the best of the three, and has little waiting time between trains — but that’s if you find it functioning, as it is not rare to find the A line closed down due to malfunctions, stranding thousands. We then have Metro B, the “OG” metro, with the oldest average train age of all three lines, weighing in at 16.4 years. The B line comes with long wait times and the frequent misfortune of encountering the veteran metro train, (just as the veteran bus, you’ll know it when you see it: it has automatic doors that open before it comes to a complete stop, and the hygiene levels of a porta potty.) Metro C is the newest addition of the three, and fully automatic (no drivers needed), yet with the line still in construction the wait times are truly astronomical and the worst of its counterparts. Of course, the lack of runs creates crowds at bus stops and metro stations creating a recipe for disaster, most notable during rush hour. Sure, I’ve never been in a mosh pit, but I’ve been on Metro B at 8 in the morning. It’s like a mosh pit, but with less screaming and more cursing in Italian. I know we should expect rush hour to always be a bit hectic and crammed, but to feel like I’m front row at a Woodstock festival seems a bit much. The bottom line is that the public transportation system in Rome system lives up to its reputation, entailing long wait times, overcrowding, and unreliable service.

Lastly, I won’t call it a negative aspect, but something should be said of the times of the metro operating hours, which aren’t too extensive during the week, as Sunday to Thursday the metro closes at 11:30 PM. If you’re out later, then be prepared to triple your commute time with the unforgiving night buses — an exponentially slower version of daytime buses. I hate to do comparisons, but London has various 24 hour metro lines — while other European cities keep theirs open until 12:30 AM on weekdays. That’s why even a little bump in time to midnight or even 00:30 would be closer to other European capitals, but again an issue that is minor in the face of the aforementioned systemic issues. 

With all this being said, I do want to end by saying this; I’m a proud Italian (well, half-Italian), and even more a proud Roman. I love this city. I do realize that I cannot expect Swiss perfection, in fact, maybe in some sort of odd way, the flawed public transport in this city is part of its chaotic charm (if that’s the case for you, please see a doctor) — but one thing is certain: Rome deserves better than what it’s got now.