thoughts on our urban future

Amalfi – A Transportation Snapshot

Amalfi from the docks

It is a running joke amongst people that I know that when I get back from a holiday and am showing someone my photographs, eventually there will be a picture of a parking lot.  Or a parking space, an interesting road, a sidewalk detail, or… you get the idea.  My trip to Italy earlier this year was no exception, so I thought I would share with you, urban design enthusiasts, something I noted when I visited Amalfi.

This trip was the first time I had been to the Amalfi coast, which was stunning, but provides an interesting problem about urban modernization.  It is entirely obvious that the settlements along the harsh coast had everything to do with the water originally.  The main road that now lets brave tourists on buses access this string of towns was opened in 1853, but Amalfi has a much older history, with the first mention in historic records in the 6th century.  It’s hard to imagine how people could scrape out a thriving community in such a beautiful but harsh environment, yet obviously they did.

Like most of the settlements along the coast, the town is somewhat vertical.  Amalfi has a main road leading up through the center, but then steep staircases branch off from either side to provide access to the surrounding buildings and settlements.  The main road in Amalfi in the low season looks like this around the mid-point:

Amalfi main road

It’s narrow and it’s historic; it is in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In particular I want to draw attention to the pedestrians in the above photograph, as there are many shops facing straight onto the roadway.  I wouldn’t want to be disabled in Amalfi, but it is for the most part a ‘walking place’.  This was January, not at all the tourist season, and I can only imagine what this place is like when the weather is warm.  So picturesque and perfect, you can imagine what it must have been like hundreds of years ago to walk along these same streets, no?

Except of course that the passage of time includes advancements in technology and in particular transportation.  If the main road connecting all the coastal towns was opened in 1853 it was only going to be a matter of time that people would want better means of personal transportation as close to their homes and places of work as possible, and today this means cars.  So what do you do with cars in Amalfi?

Well in certain areas of the town it’s clear where the cars go.  Down by the waterfront where it is relatively flat and the main coastal road connects to the town is also where there is a good sized parking lot for both cars and buses.  There is also a wider and flatter area at the top of the town where the following picture was taken from where the streets are clearly wide enough to accommodate vehicles, albeit with their parking brakes firmly engaged:

Amalfi parking

So this is all well and good, Amalfi can apparently adapt to contain cars.  But as should be clear from my first photograph of the main street, it is not wide enough for two lanes of traffic to go up and down the cliff side.  So Amalfi has been retrofit with an ever so clever traffic light system to allow one-way traffic to take their turns in each direction along the main road:

The light at the top of the hill

The light at the bottom of the hill

Of course this is a sensible solution to a very particular problem, but so what?

I would like to make the argument that even when we think that we are prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists in modern design, we are probably not.  There are far more stringent and restrictive options available to put people first.  The Amalfi retrofit of their historic town to adapt to personal transportation needs should perhaps not be viewed as a one-off necessity.  What if we had more streets and places like this?  What would it mean to how we think about place making and street design?

Of course people, and in particular, people with cars, would not like it.  I’ll be the first to admit that the general population would think a new design in this manner would be an incredibly awful idea.  “Why would anyone do that,” people would wonder, “when there was a blank canvas to begin with?!?”

And hence one of the problems that urban designer have and that some other posts here have touched upon.  There are many competing needs in place making and design.  Sometimes it is not in the long-term best interest of a local population to have everything that they want, or think they want.  But alternately, a proposal with no significant buy-in from local residents is almost certainly doomed to failure.

I can think of many instances where this sort of traffic intervention would be useful in making certain areas less attractive to cars and more attractive to pedestrians.  I can also see how reducing road widths in some areas could also be beneficial.  I think part of the reason that I take these photographs when I travel, and note these idiosyncrasies of places that I go to, is that there is a lot that can be learned about how things can alternately be done as well as understanding that things that might be taken for granted in one place are not a requirement in another.  I think it’s important to remind myself that people are tremendously adaptable in terms of the places they live, and how they live in them.  Maybe massive tumultuous change in design is a bit over the top, but what small tweaks or lessons can be learned from seeing how other people have simply done it differently?  What I am not suggesting is that this idea be implemented everywhere, but perhaps it might be a good idea somewhere.  And I see it as my job as a designer to try to have as much knowledge as possible of what the options and alternatives might be.

So stay tuned for my next holiday snapshots.

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  1. Design (whether considering planning, architecture or another form of urban design) requires balanced decisions, often with competing interests. Typically, these competing interests receive a token gesture, and not the due consideration required to make the tough decisions.

    It is easier to suggest that you accommodated the car, allowed for walking, provided some sort of access to buses somewhere, etc. It is more difficult to create an overall vision and make decisions that may undermine cars, or public transport along a key street to create a series of close-knit spaces. But I think designers need to think of the competing interests and offer the range of possibilities with determination, leadership and drive if we aspire to create successful, endearing and lasting places. Sometimes it is better to accommodate the car, or the pedestrian first, or whatever, as long as a bigger, more convincing concept is developed and realised.

  2. As I read Kaylas post it immediately struck me that we do have these one-way traffic signal situations here in Trinidad, although, its a slightly different situation. Yes. The idea is a good fast, temporary and economical solution.

    A few Bailey Bridges have been installed as temporary access across rivers (In one instance the original bridges collapsed due to old age and in the other, its a new connection to reduce traffic congestion on a main road in a rapidly urbanzing area) The Bailey bridges used allow only a single lane of cars, so they have installed the traffic signals as you described similar to Amalfi.

    I do suspect that there was no initial intention to install traffic signals, at least in the Bailey bridge that I use ( rural to sub-urban area; the signals werent installed until about more than a year or two), but after many an altercation on the bridge, including meeting up with stubborn drivers and having to reverse the entire length of the bridge, it was necessary to install signals to prevent ugly disputes, bloodshed and further traffic congestion. There was always a mad rush to see who could get to the bridge first.

    I suspect some of the other Caribbean islands due to steep coastal cities and narrow lanes would have similar solution to Amalfi. If I come across any, I will be sure to let you know.

  3. It’s true- I’ve seen other one way traffic systems- as you say, often on bridges, although my experience has been with more historic (and narrow) bridges in the States as opposed to something new. This sort of manipulation is also common for road works, sometimes the single one way lane can be for miles! But this was probably the first time I had seen this system in the heart of a place as opposed to the periphery. I think we accept this sort of condition for an anomaly, but we don’t think of it as the main attraction. And I suppose to me that difference is what’s interesting. Seeing that we do accept this sort of condition already, we just tend to use it as a back-up or band-aid method as opposed to the original method.

    As a side note, the main road in Amalfi is too long and slightly curved, there would be a real and serious problem if two vehicles met mid-hill!!

  4. Having just returned to NYC from south Florida for a week (first time in 32 years), The issue of car traffic, roads and parking has been on my mind about the experience. Don’t get me wrong— there are areas of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale that are quite beautiful and the weather was 82 and dry for the week. BUT—traffic by beach roads was impossible at any time of day and once you get beyond the central cities, Florida is paved over. Main roads are 4- 6 lanes wide and the highways and turnpikes are 8-12 lanes with often parallel roads. Massive interchanges as you would expect. Sound barriers abound with only a few palms to break the monotony. UGH

    I’ll take Italy any day!

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