Public Transport in Rome Living in Rome

Thursday, February 3, 2011 by Vlad Beffa United States


Murphyʼs Law states that if, while working on your car, you drop a tool, it will bounce, roll, or somehow find its way to the spot which is directly under the exact geographical center of the car.
What has this to do with public transport in Rome? Plenty, for Murphyʼs Law can be (and has been) extended to many other aspects of life. In this article I shall endeavor to extend it to public transport in Rome. Let us first consider the act of waiting for a bus. It can be observed that if you are at, say, Piazza Bainsizza in Prating waiting for, say, the 280, you will in fact see every other bus except the 280 pass by. To wit, you will see: the 224, 628, and (depending on the time of day) 186 buses pass by first. You will then observe, but not board, the 280 bus pass by, because it will be going in the opposite direction. Only after each of these conditions has been fulfilled will you finally see the long-expected (and by now profusely cursed at) 280. The exact line is irrelevant; if you had instead been waiting for the 224 bus, you would have seen the 186, 628, and 280 buses first instead.
Let us also consider the number of people waiting at a bus stop. Regardless of which particular bus they are waiting for, Murphyʼs Law states that the number of people waiting is directly proportional to the number of DEPOSITO (“depot”) or, less frequently, RIMESSA (DEPOSITOʼs little brother, “replacement”) buses that will pass by. These buses are ostensibly headed to the depot or to replace another bus, but I am not sure this would actually hold up to closer scrutiny. The important fact is that these buses are un-flag-downable, and that the more people waiting with you at the stop, the more of these buses you will see.
In addition to Murphyʼs Law, there is, of course, the law of averages. This law basically states that in the long run the bus you are waiting for does in fact pass as frequently as other buses. So what you will see is that every so often the 280 bus (if that is what you are waiting for) will be the first to appear, and within seconds of your arrival at the stop. It will, however, be jam-packed to capacity. Immediately behind it you will see a second, nearly empty, 280. When you try to flag down the second 280, the driver will smugly accelerate and overtake the first 280 (which is slowing down to the stop), on the assumption that since thereʼs already a 280 just ahead of him, he doesnʼt need to bother stopping. You will then be forced to board, sardine- or fruit-preserve-style, the first 280, or wait for another one (see previous paragraph for expected wait time). Sometimes you will see not one but two empty 280s following on the heels of the first full one, and on the occasions that you succeed in flagging one of them down, the bus driver will give you an evil glare. Ingrate and knave that you are, you have delayed his cigarette break at the end of his route by an unconscionable fifteen to twenty seconds.
Letʼs turn now to the metro which is, to be honest, usually much more reliable than buses. We can however note some peculiarities in this aspect of public transport in Rome as well. The first is again in the waiting times. Often the electronic billboards over the platforms will light up with messages such as “PROSSIMO TRENO TRA 2 MINUTI.” “Great,” you might think. “Only 2 minutes to wait.” You might think that, but you would think wrongly. “2 MINUTI” does not actually mean 2 minutes; all that can be said with precision about it is that it is some unit of time longer than “1 MINUTO” and shorter than “3 MINUTI.” Conversion to a measurable amount of time is a tricky business. (I suspect there are some relativistic effects at work.) When trains do arrive you will usually observe the billboard to flash “TRENO PER ANAGNINA IN ARRIVO.” After waiting the advertised “2 MINUTI” you will be happy that your train is finally arriving. Your happiness might, unfortunately, be premature. This billboard doesnʼt necessarily mean that a train is now arriving at your particular station headed in your particular direction. It sometimes means merely that somewhere along your line, in your direction, a train is arriving; it wonʼt necessarily be at your station. So you will sometimes observe the flashing message to cease without the arrival of any train. Another possibility is that of a ghost train. When the tunnels for the metro were dug thirty or forty years ago (the very first line opened in 1955), no doubt some ancient Roman graves were disturbed. The ghosts of those dead Romans might have been awakened, and they may then have built their own trains to travel the tracks at night. The conductor may possibly be a wrathful, maniacal Nero blasting through the tunnels, looking for traces of the city he burnt down and craves to bring under his heel again. Keep this in mind the next time you are at a station waiting alone late on a Saturday night and you see “TRENO PER BATTISTINI IN ARRIVO” flashing, followed by a distant mournful whistle, and then stopping without an actual train arriving.
Let me close with a few words on night buses. Like the metro, these do in fact tend to be more reliable than regular buses. Wait times might be longish; but empty streets mean fast travel times. It is actually possible to travel on the n1 from Anagnina to Lepanto or Ottaviano faster on a night bus than on the metro. The bus drivers drive with a vehemence that makes every seat, bar, and window on board rattle as though the bus were passing through a tornado. I once mentioned to an Italian friend that the night bus drivers always seem to be angry, and to drive angrily. “Yeah. It could be they are angry at their wives,” was his response. Or it could be, as I prefer to think, that they are possessed by the spirit of Nero, wrathful and maniacal, as he haunts the Eternal City, looking for another opportunity to impose his dominion upon it. Happy public transporting!

Vlad Beffa United States

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