Rome Tried to Break Up Its Version of the MTA, and Only Apathy Stopped It

Mayor Virginia Raggi arrives on the scene of the escalator collapse. Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

There are few manifestations of a bumbling city government that Romans loathe more than ATAC, the public transit agency that makes the MTA look positively Singaporean. In Rome, when your bus doesn’t come, that may be because it’s in flames. The agency’s popularity dipped even deeper into the mire when a subway escalator collapsed a few weeks ago, panicking and maiming its riders. Fortunately, citizens had an opportunity to express their displeasure in a citywide referendum with a single choice on the ballot: (a) break ATAC’s stranglehold on public transit, or (b) don’t.

The result was spectacularly lopsided: More than three-quarters of those who voted checked the box to deregulate transportation and punish ATAC. Great! Let’s take their lead and get an MTA-smashing proposal on the New York ballot next year.

Except, of course, that everything will actually stay the same. Why? Because despite the ire and despair that have been coursing through the city, only 16 percent of eligible voters bothered to show up at the polls, far less than the required quorum. Italian has a word for such a virulent strain of apathy: menefreghismo, which translates roughly to I-don’t-give-a-shit-ism.

Mayor Virginia Raggi celebrated the failed referendum on Twitter: “Romans want public transit to remain public,” she declared. There are other, more plausible takeaways: Romans believe that if the system is corrupt, deregulating only adds to the possibilities for corruption. Romans have given up so completely on public transit that they don’t care who runs it. Romans would rather drive anyway, and leave the buses to nonvoting immigrants. Whatever motivates their apathy, Rome’s nonvoters have sent a clear message to the world: If you don’t speak up, the powerful will claim to know exactly what you meant to say.

Rome Tried to Break Up Its Transit Authority. Apathy Won.