NAPLES, Italy -- Step onto the streets of this historic Mediterranean port and you find yourself in a vehicular nightmare.
Cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles mix and move with almost zero regard to lanes, signals or signs. Mopeds weave between moving vehicles, often in counterflow to the traffic. Pedestrians risk life and limb as drivers pay zero attention to painted pedestrian crossings. A cacophony of horns fills the air (day-long, even into early morning hours).
And sidewalks? They're jagged, narrow, and regularly violated by illegally (but unticketed) parked cars and cycles.
Stepping into this chaos following his election a year ago, Mayor Luigi de Magistris took a fascinating first step. With yachting's America's Cup World Series upcoming, he removed all vehicle traffic from Via Caracciolo, Naples' dramatic oceanfront boulevard commanding grand views of Mount Vesuvius and the city's historic harbor.
"For years," he explains, "the citizens of Naples could not hear the sea -- as they walked along, they could only hear the cars. Today you can walk, bicycle the roadway, paint, skateboard. And it's not just beautiful. It's a place to socialize."
De Magistris boasted his breakthrough as he welcomed thousands of delegates from across the world attending the UN-HABITAT-sponsored World Urban Forum in Naples earlier this month. The forum focused on multiple issues key to today's cities -- economy, basic services, relieving poverty, expanding housing and slum upgrading. Rapid urbanization of the developing world and concerns about rational expansion of cities' physical footprint were major topics.
But rising concern about the coexistence of motor vehicles and Homo sapiens was clear in a major forum on the topic. "The car has been a positive for decades. But now it's showing its cost to the environment and congestion," said a Venezuelan delegate, adding: "We need to reach a settlement with the car."
The deputy mayor of Suwon, South Korea, a city of more than 1 million, noted that Asia's cities "are now dominated by personal cars. We need to turn around and create car-free cities -- people-centered towns."
An official from Mexico City confessed his city is "a most painful place to travel -- people are spending years of their lives in cars. Four thousand people a year are dying from poor air quality. There are high rates of accidents. We know we're not winning the battle today." But, he added: "Young people are searching for other solutions, choosing accessible neighborhoods."
In fact, a Youth Declaration at the Naples conference called on leaders to develop sustainable transport for future generations. And optimism was expressed about new information technology to optimize bus routes and timing and provide commuters with real-time, cellphone-based travel information.
Observers from China -- a nation that's been flooded by new automobiles as its standard of living rises -- praised the effort in Shanghai and Beijing to reduce car congestion by auctioning off limited numbers of new license plate permits.
A skeptic can say that none of this matches the desire of the global middle class to own a personal automobile -- an urge fed by mass media and the auto industry's massive worldwide advertising budgets.
Today's trends -- rising auto deaths, congestion, and pollution worldwide -- are reasons for pessimism. But, driving is losing its panache among youth, in the U.S. and elsewhere. And as a World Urban Forum participant noted, "Experts, corporations, governments are saying, 'Yes, we need mobility, affordability and livability in cities.'"
Plus, just as bicycle use and protected biking lanes expand rapidly in the U.S. and Europe, a new global appetite for alternatives is forming. A likely next indicator will be cities dramatically increasing auto-free pedestrian zones.
On that score, Mayor de Magistris recently went beyond his waterfront boulevard pedestrianization to close the historic city center to all automotive traffic (except for residents of the area) from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. His avowed purposes: to preserve the area's heritage, reduce carbon emissions, improve traffic flows, reduce noise, eliminate illegal parking, and free bus lanes from illegal incursion.
But this is southern Italy. Organized crime circles -- the so-called Comorro, a powerful international crime syndicate that had previously tangled with the mayor -- led demonstrations against the closure. Riding in a taxi nearby, I heard the driver repeatedly throw up his hands and declare, "Mafiosa, Mafiosa!!"
By contrast, I keep recalling the words of Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia: "For 5,000 years, all streets in all cities were for pedestrians. The issue's equity -- that all citizens are equal before the law. Millions have died for that principle. Yet tens of thousands of children are killed by cars every year. Has anyone voted to give roadways to cars, or to take over sidewalks?"
For a sane and livable 21st century, city leaders across the world will have to be asking that question -- and acting on it. Letting Naples, of all unlikely spots, help show the way.
Neal Peirce's email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group
The opinions expressed in this column are not necesssarily those of the National League of Cities.