Tuscany is renowned for its history and beauty. Florence and Siena trace their roots to 200BC and 400BC respectively, yet both cities have adapted to the modern world which includes significant hordes of tourists descending on them to experience their history and culture and to enjoy local cuisine. With basic historic city road structure established centuries ago, providing mobility for residents and visitors in today’s age is a challenge.
Florence, with over 360,000 residents, is by far the larger of the two cities (Siena has around 270,333 residents). Over 16 million tourists visit the city each year. At peak travel times, there are more tourists than residents. As a heavily tourist focused region, the Florence city and metropolitan area is large and relatively diverse, spanning over 1,300 square miles. Given its challenges, Florence appears to be doing remarkably well in providing mobility—by car, train, bus, bicycle, and of course on foot. But there are two key factors that make this old city work. One is that Florence is a central node in Italy’s remarkable high speed train system, and the second is its frequent and comprehensive bus service which has been thoughtfully integrated into Google’s map information program, making it possible to travel throughout the city and region—even to places unsuitable for cars.
High speed trains connect Florence to Milan, Venice, Bolognia, Rome and Naples. The high speed system, augmented by regional trains and buses deliver massive amounts of regional, national, and international visitors to the heart of the ancient and historic city. Italian high speed trains, like those in France, Germany, Spain, Japan and China are fast. With the capability of traveling up to 300 kph (186 miles per hour), these trains can make the 200 mile trip from Milan to Florence in about one hour and forty minutes, only slightly longer in comparison to the one hour and twenty minute trip Amtrak’s Acela makes, travelling between New York City and Philadelphia, a trip that is half the distance. Because of such good train access, the space normally required to handle auto-traffic is minimized allowing for the ancient street layout to effectively function.
Florence’s Bus System
Because of the City’s antiquated road system, one might think that Florence’s bus based transit system (there is one tram, and three additional lines planned, including service to the airport) would not be easy for travelers to navigate. And at first blush, the myriad of urban and suburban bus routes appear to be both opaque and complex. But excellent integration of the transit system with Google Maps actually makes the system easy to use after a little investment. The urban part of the system runs frequently, so in combination with the smart phone integration, it can be incredibly effective for the visitor.
There are routes clearly designed primarily for tourists, which use smaller vehicles and lead directly into the center of the old town. Interestingly, Le City Line di Firenze ( The City Line City Centre Bus Network) has decided to keep these services completely integrated with the larger transit system which encourages even greater use as people become comfortable with using the system. This stands in stark contrast with places like Philadelphia which have developed a lone tourist route (The Flash) separately branded and detached from the larger transit system—to the detriment of both. As a side note, the need of Philadelphia institutions such as Penn and Drexel Universities, commercial developments such as the Navy Yard and developments near 30th Street Station, and even condominium complexes to provide their own separate transit services reduces the potential network benefits that are enjoyed by more integrated systems.
While the bus transit system in central Florence is easy to use, especially if you are using Google Maps, there is a whole other world of suburban and regional buses for which there is online information, but one would have to be an intrepid traveler to navigate them without the help of a local.
The bottom line of Florence is that it is a historic city that has benefited tremendously through the introduction of high speed rail along with well integrated information about its frequent urban bus service. It is surprisingly easy to find your way through Florence Santa Maria Novella Station and it is well worth the time to learn how to best use the local bus system.
Just like Florence, Siena is a beautiful city that swells with tourists. Access is highly constrained by geography and the ancient layout of the city. Auto access, for the most part, is constrained to the periphery of the city. As a tourist, you can drive to Siena, but will have to park your car on the outskirts of the city and then enter on foot from there. Drastically different from Florence, access to Siena by train is a relatively indirect and slow route using self-powered diesel rail cars. The train station is also on the edge of the city rather than in the center. And while the train ride from Florence to Siena is pleasant, the effort to either take a bus or walk to the center of the city is, to put it politely, a challenge.
Being intrepid transit users, my wife and I were determined to adopt the local way of getting around and take the bus to our Siena hotel. As a result of confusing and inadequate signage, it took us an hour to find and board a bus to our destination, which passed through an underground roadway adjacent to a shopping mall parking lot next to the train station. The bus stop was, again to put it politely, utilitarian. Unlike Florence, the buses were relatively infrequent and overcrowded. It was unusually difficult to figure out how to go from one destination or another, or even properly identify the correct bus stop to do so. Part of the problem is Siena’s ancient, complex street layout and topography, but the lack of useful information also proved insurmountable.
And the experience didn’t get much better with practice. Despite repeated attempts, we were generally unsuccessful in reaching our destination—primarily hotels, car rental facilities, and the train station by bus.
Getting Around Tuscany by Car
Of course people don’t travel to Tuscany to take the bus—they go to drive through the beautiful country side and hill towns. And this activity did not disappoint, especially trips on less heavily traveled roads to less heavily touristed towns. San Gimignano, for example, was a pleasant trip from Siena, but so overwhelmingly visited by people like ourselves that it felt a little like Disneyland. On the other hand, travelling southwest from Siena to Buonconvento, Petroio and Montepulciano and ultimately ending at hot springs in Chianciano Terme was delightful. The landscape of Tuscany is a never ending variety of topography, agriculture, and hilltowns, worthy of its reputation.
Richard Voith is a President and Principal at Econsult Solutions, and is the current Chair of the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Counselors of Real Estate. He is a well-known expert in transportation and applied economics. He is also a board member of PENTRANS and Philadelphia Youth Basketball.