Urban traffic has been terrible for at least two thousand years
Even though they’re too young to drive, my kids have already learned to dread traffic. They know how car-clogged roads make us tense, late, and are generally unpleasant, even before you start worrying about noise, air pollution and increased risks for accidents. As much as this may seem like an unavoidable part of driving a car, humans have been struggling with congested roads for thousands of years, going back at least as far as ancient Rome. In some respects, citizens of ancient cities like Pompeii may have had it worse than we do, starting with fact that their roads had to double as sewage lines.
There were a lot of complications in getting your ox cart down the road in a city like Pompeii, but one of the most ubiquitous issues would have been the water, sewage and other garbage running down the stone streets. While Romans famously designed aqueducts, public toilets and more, not every form of waste management seems so innovative from a modern perspective. There was management involved though, as streets had intentionally deep curbs to keep water off the sidewalks. They also had raised stepping stones across streets, acting as a simple crosswalk to let pedestrians cross the road without stepping in the muck. Wagon wheels were expected to thread their way between the stones, but that’s probably ok since it would have been hard to move quickly in the first place.
No easy navigation
Moving carts and wagons through these sullied streets was a slow process, partially thanks to the tight fit these vehicles dealt with to get through town. Most streets weren’t more than three feet across, leaving just enough room for a single cart at a time. Since advanced maneuvers like turning were out of the question, as many as 77 percent of the streets were essentially one-way. This likely created bottlenecks when a cart or wagon needed to park, or maybe try to get around a corner with very little room to work with.
Beyond the mechanical issues that made moving through Pompeii difficult, the city layout was a mixed bag. Some streets were winding and less predictable, having been built according to old paths or trails. Much of the city was planned though, with most streets being laid out along a grid that may have been hard to squeeze through, but was at least comprehensible. To balance that out, only a portion of the streets had clearly marked names, ensuring that people new to the city had more reason to slow down traffic while figuring out where they were.
Understandably, all of the above could come together for a difficult, frustrating trip through town. Like today, there were complaints about noise and safety, with Roman writers making a point to comment on the clatter of wagons and swearing from their drivers. If the familiarity of these traffic woes feels somewhat disheartening, there are some silver linings to take solace in. After all, it’s much safer for a distracted pedestrian to stare at their phone now that they’re less likely to fall into a sewage covering the street. If they do manage to pull that off, at least we know there will still be plenty of other people around to swear at them.
Source: Pompeii Had Some Intense Rush Hour Traffic Too by Sarah Bond, Forbes