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Why driving in Rome isn’t the best of ideas: meet the ZTL

Published on November 15, 2018 by C. P.

Via della Conciliazione Vatican rental house holidays Rome

Thinking about reaching Rome – or moving through it – by car? Think again!

Sadly, many travellers completely overlook this crucial aspect, and only think of how cheap it is to rent a car (or another vehicle) when budgeting for their time away from home. Little do they know that Rome, as many other heritage cities in Italy and abroad, has a system in place to discourage drivers from entering certain areas to reduce traffic congestion, pollution and – ultimately – securing the future of many fragile monuments.

Throughout Italy, said measure has a single name, ZTL – which means “restricted driving zone”. Not “prohibited”, mind you. This is what leads many tourists to be mistaken: they see cars driving around, they think they can do too and get fined as a result.

How does the ZTL works?

This is exactly the way the ZTL works: only citizens with a special permit can get to drive in the city center of Rome. Said permit is usually issued every year to actual residents of the areas where the ZTL is operational. Other such passes are given to workers in government buildings, embassies, universities or other offices – there are many of these in the old city. The pass itself authorises a car with a specific car plate to move inside the center of the city, therefore it is no good when used on a different car, truck, van or even RV.

What does the ZTL look like?

If you’re used to seeing many security cameras where you live, you may not notice you’re entering a ZTL area. In fact, accesses are signalled by the presence of a number of cameras in the same place – they need to “read” a car’s license plate from every possible angle to know whether that car is indeed OK to drive inside a restricted area. More than anything else, though, there are two different signs you will need to familiarise yourself with:

ZTL Italy roadsign

A typical roadsign announcing the access to a ZTL area

Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Also important to know is that ZTL accesses are unmanned, as you can see in the picture above. You won’t know you have done something wrong, that is, until later on when you get reached by a hefty fine. ZTL fines are automatic and there is, alas, no escaping.

ZTL fines: will they get to you if you live abroad?

As mentioned, cameras scan your license plate and if yours doesn’t show up in a list with authorized vehicles, the car you’re driving will be fined. Now, if you have a rental, it’s not the agency that will pay up. Instead, they will look up the name of whoever was driving their vehicle on that particular day and city and send you a notice if it was you – that notice also comes at a price, roughly around 25 EUR for each time they needed to look up the name and address of a client. This is in their Terms & Conditions when you pick up a car.

After that initial notice, many municipalities of Italy decide to work with international collection agencies: it’s up to them to get in touch with you to demand the payment. This can happen in a matter of months or even years from when the offence was made (it really depends on whether an agency is involved at all). Depending on when the fine is notified, the payable amount will change, too. A ZTL fine will be discounted if paid within 5 days from the offence, but when rental agencies and collection agencies get involved, the price may get to hundreds of Euros.

Is the ZTL a tourist trap?

The short answer is: no. The ZTL system is in place to discourage Italians from taking their cars for every journey, however short it may be. It’s also a way to promote the alternative use of public transport, which particularly in the center of Rome is cheap, convenient and frequent. Of course many tourists fall prey to the dreaded ZTL cameras, but only because Italy is a tourist-heavy destination and… they do not research enough before coming over. That includes knowing the signs, the rules of the road, the potential costs. So while some may feel like they have been targeted, that is very far from the truth.

Is Ecopass the future of ZTL?

While it does wonders in smaller cities, the ZTL may not be forever in a big city like Rome. The current mayor, Mrs. Virginia Raggi, is said to be considering a switch to a system similar to the congestion charge already in place in Milan (or, famously, in London). With the Roman congestion charge, which will be known as “Ecopass“, certain types of “outdated” cars, vans or trucks would be denied entrance to the city center in spite of the presence of a valid permit. All other vehicles would have to pay a toll to access the city center. The toll would be paid daily and linked to your credit card, bank account or other such means of payment.

Other arguments against driving in Rome

  • An old adagio says that Italians, and Romans and Neapolitans in particular, are completely reckless behind the wheel. While there may be people who fit the description, the average Roman is a very competent, aggressive driver. That doesn’t make them crazy: they learned to drive the way they drive on streets that (for instance) are narrower than your average, because they were already there when cars weren’t even a thing! Trying to “copy” that style, if you’re not used to it, can result in a stressful experience and can be downright dangerous.
  • Roadsigns can be completely different. You could be falling unintentionally for signs that look like those at home but actually mean something slightly different or you could be confused by the way operating hours are indicated.
  • Parkings are color coded, and this leads to more confusion.
  • GPS systems (in your rental car or on your phone) may not be up to date and usually fail to detect and warn you about an upcoming ZTL access.
  • ZTL rules are not the same everywhere you go in Italy. Every municipality is solely responsible for enforcing it on their own territory, which is an obvious consequence of the different type of traffic, the amount of citizens there and so on… Therefore, access hours may vary, as the amount of fines, or exemptions…

Did we scare you? That was not our intention! What we want, though, is help you consider the various issues with this particular subject, keeping in mind that the best way to explore Rome is by public transport or even walking!

When you visit Rome and are looking to stay in one of From Home to Rome’s managed apartments in the center of Rome, know that all of them lie in a ZTL area – except for our Via Gallia accommodation (then again, this is right by a number of restricted zones in the city). So if you’re travelling by car, whether your own or a rental, get in touch today and we can give you a local’s perspective on how to make the best choice regarding your upcoming trip!

Category: Landmarks, Rome 101

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