My family and I planned to spend 2 days and 3 nights in the eternal city. I had read online while planning the trip that it wasn’t advised to drive in Rome, and you’d be crazy nuts to consider it. Well, crazy drivers and insane traffic don’t bother me. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in New York City, or maybe because I actually enjoy driving, I don’t know. I’ve read the same exact thing before about driving in cities such as Paris and Rio de Janeiro, but this didn’t deter me from renting a car and driving all over these cities – which I did and was fine. However, this time we would be actually staying within the city of Rome, and I figured it may be just simpler not to hassle with the car this one time.
Public transportation in Rome consists of buses, metro (subway), and trams which run on the surface of the street. For the majority of our transportation needs, we would be required to use the buses to get around parts of the city – though we did use the metro once.
I have heard many times from various people who had been to Rome that “nobody pays for the bus in Rome”. When I first heard this, I thought “Huh? How can they not pay???” Out of curiosity and to better understand how the system worked, I looked it up online.
I learned that in order to ride on the public buses of Rome, a metrebus (BIT) ticket must be purchased prior to travel on the bus, and must be validated once you board the bus. Once validated, the ticket is good for all transfers within the city and is valid for 100 minutes from first validation. The cost of a ticket is €1.50 and it could be purchased at any newsstand or store licensed to sell cigarettes. These are labeled with the “tabacchi” sign with a large “T”. If you board a public bus without a ticket, or if you board with a ticket and don’t validate the ticket, you risk the chance of a €50 fine to be paid on the spot plus the cost of the ticket.
You validate the ticket fairly easily. Once you board the bus, look for the yellow validation machine in the front, back, and sometimes middle of the bus. You insert the ticket into the machine and it stamps the ticket with the time and date you first used it.
I thought “Ok, this seems simple enough, why wouldn’t Romans pay? Are they just that dishonest?” Well the answer is a little more complicated.
When we arrived in Rome and planned to use the buses the next day, I walked down the block from our apartment to the local tabacchi store to purchase tickets. Being the incredibly detailed and anal person I am, I had researched prior exactly where the closest store was so I knew exactly where to go. I often do this when planning trips so it leaves little room for surprise, but sometimes this plan fails regardless.
I purchased the tickets and we were set! I’m an honest person, and regardless if everyone in Rome was scamming the system and it was the easiest thing to ride for free, my family and I were going to do things the honest and legal way, even if we were the only ones!
So the next morning we walk to the bus stop to head to the Colosseum. The bus arrived and we entered using the middle door on the bus (there was a back, middle, and front door). The doors opened and we had to squeeze on an INCREDIBLY crowded bus with barely enough room to breathe! While I didn’t take the photo above, nor do I know where it was taken, it looked just like this! People were standing shoulder to shoulder and packed in like sardines. I looked for the yellow validation machine and spotted one through the crowd located at the front of the bus, and another at the back of the bus. None were in the middle.
I immediately thought “How am I supposed to validate this ticket???” I then thought “Maybe this is the reason no one pays?” It’s impossible to get to the validation machine! I figured if you entered at the front or the back of the bus it would be easier, being there was a validation machine at these locations.
At the next bus stop I watched some people get off at the back door of the bus and new passengers get on. These new passengers (who boarded using the back door) stood RIGHT NEXT TO the validation machine and they didn’t use it! In fact everyone was totally ignoring it! This annoyed my wife Charity and I incredibly because these people had no reason not to use it! It appeared they WERE being dishonest, and trying to get a free ride.
So then Charity says to me, “You need to get over there and validate the ticket!” I said “Yes I know but how?” There were like 15-20 people squeezed together between me and the machine with no room to move! So another stop went by, and another. The freedom to move wasn’t getting any better. Still jammed in like crazy, and no chance for me to get over to one of the machines.
At this point I was determined to be the one honest person in Rome and validate my ticket! So I suggested to Charity that we should get off at the next stop (using the middle door which we were next to), and then re-board at the back of the bus next to the validation machine. This way we could stand next to the machine to validate our tickets. She then said “We’re five people with a backpack, camera, etc… why don’t you just quickly get off and re-board at the back?” I responded “Well then I’ll be separated from you on the bus, but at least we can pay properly for the ride.” So that was the plan.
So at the next stop, the bus stopped and the side door opened. I excused myself past the couple of people standing in front of the door and exited the bus. Then the excitement started. As I started towards the back door of the bus the doors began to close! I quickly went back to the middle door I had exited from (because it was the closer of the two), and by the time I reached it the door was shut – with me outside! In a matter of nanoseconds fear struck in me of being separated from my wife and children in a foreign city in a foreign country with no means to communicate with them (as our cellphones were inoperative). Acting on impulse I pried open the door to the bus before the bus decided to pull away stranding me on the street. I wedged my arm into the door and got the door to open and re-boarded the bus exactly where I exited and went next to my family in relief. At that instant, the bus driver stood up and started screaming at me incredibly loud and incredibly undecipherable as it was completely in Italian! I could understand some Italian when spoken at a normal pace, but there was no chance of me understanding this. He kept on yelling while everyone on the bus was staring at me. I thought “This is what you get for trying to be honest!”
After what seemed like a good minute, the bus driver stopped yelling, and the bus pulled away from the stop continuing on our way. I looked at Charity in disbelief and said “I guess we’re not worrying about validating the ticket for now.” We both thought the situation was incredibly humorous and were trying hard to keep from laughing for fear we might be put in an Italian prison.
After several more stops the bus finally started to deplete and is was only then when I was finally able to walk over to the machine (about 10-15 stops late) and validate our tickets. I even got stares when I did as I was the only person who used the machine. Apparently, paying for your bus ride is a foreign concept in Rome to locals – at least this is how it was perceived.
We had an uneventful rest of the trip (as far as not being screamed at by any more crazy bus drivers for trying to actually pay to ride). We managed to validate our bus tickets every time we got on a bus once we were able to access the machine. We did notice a few other honest tourists speaking English that validated their tickets as well, and this brought a smile to our faces. While in some circumstances when the buses are packed solid, I can understand why the passengers don’t hassle with the machine, however as soon as you have access to it, there is absolutely no excuse not to do the right thing and validate your tickets. What’s even more shocking, is to see flocks of people leave the Vatican – which according to Catholics is the holiest place on Earth, and then scam on a €1.50 bus ride by not paying! It was unbelievably sad to me.
So, while at the end of this story I can easily say “When in Rome, do what the Romans do”, I won’t, because even if it meant getting screamed at by a bus driver in Italian, I’m glad we did the right thing and paid for our ride.