Lucca in Tuscany is known far beyond Italy as a poster child for pedestrian cities, partly because it’s the only city in the world completely encircled by massive, walkable walls and more because the use of cars is severely limited within those walls. Because of this reputation I was attracted to spend three months last spring in this city of 85,000 residents.
The reputation is deserved because almost every street within the walls is a fully shared public way. People, strollers, bicycles, scooters, minivans, handcarts, and cars mix across the full width of each street from building façade to facing façade. There are no raised sidewalks, no special lanes for bicycles. Everywhere is for everybody, with priority to pedestrians.
The “radical, new” ideas elsewhere powering the notions of woonerfsin the Netherlands and Germany, quality streets in the UK and “complete streets” in the United States and much of the rest of English-speaking world are already in place in downtown Lucca, the third largest city in Tuscany.
Where other cities wonder, as Quality Streets advocates put it, “Wouldn’t life be great if the street outside your front door felt like your own space? Somewhere to chat with your neighbours, kick a ball with the kids, get about by foot and bike?”, Lucca already knows the feeling. It’s not as carefree as that quote makes it sound, you’ve got to stay alert as you head out your door into the street mix. But you do not have to worry about a torrent of cars hurtling past at 30, 40, or more miles an hour.
Several hurdles slow the few cars moving through the outer Traffic Limited Zones: The omnipresence of cyclists and pedestrians. The lack of defined lanes and other signs. The narrowness of the streets. Building facades forming the streets making every corner a blind corner. As a result, few vehicles exceed 20 mph / 30 km. Most amble along at 10 mph / 15 km or so, even slower when they are obliged to follow pedestrians.
In the areas pedonales at the city’s core, even cyclists often have to dismount to wend their way through the crowds of vendors, workers, shoppers, tourists filling the street. The piazzas scattered throughout the downtown are almost exclusively peopled on foot. Cyclists prefer the unimpeded travel atop the walls or on sidewalks beside the ring road outside the walls. (For more photos of walking in Lucca, click here.)
Progressing through the inner city is perfect for Italians: almost every encounter is a negotiation. Will I stop walking/pedaling/driving to allow a cyclist/little Via bus/flock of oncoming cyclists to pass first or will I press on and make it/them wait? Person-to-person looks, gestures, and actions decide who advances when and where.
There are drawbacks to Lucca’s streets. The stone pavers are uneven, tripping unwary walkers with sometimes serious consequences. Some business owners complain that potential customers are deterred by the distance to parking outside the walls. Also, wheelchairs are seldom seen in the city, but that may derive more from the multi-story, historic buildings lacking elevators.
Outside the walls pedestrians face challenges as great as anywhere else, as I learned on my first walk from the train station to a homestay in Sant’Anna. Dragging a rolling suitcase along sidewalks so narrow an open car door blocked them, covered in gravel and crossed by innumerable driveways with inevitable stone curbs made me feel wholly unwelcome and tired. The only baby carriages I saw were being pushed down the street.
Even the paved sidewalk along Sant’Anna’s main drag of Via Puccini was so narrow that most people ignored it in favor of the wide and well paved bike path beside it.
Still, Lucca itself was not always pedestrian friendly, even inside the ring road. For much of
the 20th Century the road on the top of the walls was a car-filled freeway, the former moats outside and the piazzas inside were car-filled parking lots. About 1990, in changes that prompted howls of protest, cars were banned from the walls, the outer parking lots became a green belt, and the piazzas were cleared for people.
But the issue is not resolved. In the most recent mayoral election (spring 2012), some candidates wanted to permit more cars in more places throughout the city. They were defeated.
So, now, still, as day softens into dusk, crowds stroll atop the walls around the city, enjoying their passeggiata, looking out across the darkening, broad, green lawns to the rows of tree sentinels screening the ring road and higher up to the farther mountain peaks and ranges that embrace their fair, pedestrian-friendly city.