It is a standing joke that when you hire a car in Catania and return it without any extra scratches, the hire company will give you a certificate that qualifies you to drive anywhere in the world!
On first impressions, the city is chaotic and terrifying for the Northern European driver. But somehow the traffic does keep moving, albeit slowly and in jumps and starts. Pedestrians seem to be able to get where they want to go and scooters – well they are a law all their own. The best advice is to never look in your rear view mirror because doing so is worse than cholesterol for your heart.
Then, after a day or so, you become slowly aware that the city works. There are more vehicles per square meter than is possible, but it works!
Eventually, you start to wonder how. What is it that makes this traffic anarchy, not only work, but actually feel less stressful than Paris, London or Munich?
Contra-Flow Bus Lanes
The first thing that struck me is that all the bus lanes, and there are many, go against the flow of traffic.
This has two effects. Cars do not enter the bus lanes like they normally do elsewhere. In with-the-flow bus lanes, the thought is that “I can just nip in for a moment to get through and any bus will have to wait a moment if one appears. I can even park in the bus lane if there are no yellow lines to say I can’t. After all, the bus can pull out to get past me.
With the against-the -flow, you know that you would meet head on and you would be holding up the whole system while you tried to get back on your own side of the road. Of course, parking becomes a total blockage and is not risked. It would become immediately apparent when the next bus arrived and be very embarrassing to the perpetrator.
Double Parking – A Good Idea, really
Catania benefits from many wide streets. Almost all of them have marked parking bays next to the curb. However, double, even triple or quadraple, parking is the norm. There is a convention that makes this work.
Basically, if you want to park for more than 10 minutes or so, you need to find a parking bay on the kerbside. This can be done by double parking until one becomes vacant.
If you are only going to be a few minutes, you double park near your destination without worrying about the cars you may be blocking in.
If you need to get out and are blocked, sound your horn. If you are double parked and you hear a horn, check to see if it is you who needs to move your car and do so as quickly as possible.
If you are parking in an inner bay but only intend to be a few minutes, either put your hazard warning lights on or leave your car protruding into the double parking lane. This warns otheres that you will be moving soon and they should avoid blocking you if possible.
For the system to work requires patience but given that parking only takes a few moments under this system you can afford a couple of minutes delay – it is a lot quicker than having to drive around for 15 minutes trying to find a non-blocked parking spot, probably 5 minutes walk away from your target destination.
There are very few traffic lights even at major intersections. Negotiating these crossroads requires an awareness of other drivers and extreme caution. The result is continuously slow moving traffic and very few accidents! Nobody assumes right of way.
Of course you do need to concentrate and not allow yourself to mentally drift off…
These are plentiful, very wide and only rarely covered by traffic lights. They are also largely ignored by pedestrians.
The rule is simple – drivers always stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road irrespective of where they may be.
Where there are pedestrian lights, drivers will stop to allow pedestrians to cross but as soon as the crossing is clear, they do not have to wait for the red light to change but can proceed anyway.
This approach saves a lot of wasted time and makes the delay of getting pedestrians across no longer an irritating delay beyond the neccessary.
Speeds above 10 or 15 miles per hour in a town is very rare. Strangely, this does not seem to be a problem.
There are two reasons for this.
1. The traffic is usually moving to some extent. You always feel to be making progress.
2. You know that when you get where you are going, you won’t be wasting a lot of time finding somewhere to park
3. You get used to planning your journey on the slower but reliable pace.
It is interesting to note that even when the streets are empty, drivers still tend not to drive much faster.
If Catania were an English town with the traffic density it has, there would be constant gridlock. Accidents would be frequent and road rage predominant.