Rome has one of the highest proportions of private vehicles in Europe at 893 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the city council, with the result that its streets are often brought to a standstill and the level of air pollution can become unbearable. But while drivers spend hours in jams, smoking and chattering into their mobile phones, or desperately seeking a parking space, chugging through the streets alongside them is a bus system that would be the envy of many other European cities.

Atac, Romes public transport authority, oversees some 250 bus lines within the city, and many more which connect the outlying suburbs. There are express lines for those in a hurry, nocturnal lines for those who like to party and little electric shuttles for those who like to shop in the historic centre. Whats more, the routes are planned specifically to connect with nodi di scambio, the points at which passengers can change from the buses to the metro, trains or trams, or collect their cars from a car park.

Of course some quarters of the city are better serviced than others, and at times heavy traffic brings the system to a standstill. Some of the buses have no air conditioning, which means temperatures on board can rise to sauna-like levels in the summer, while otherspoor suspension makes driving over the cobbles of the Eternal City a bone-shattering experience.

But by and large the buses are clean (albeit graffiti-ed to varying degrees), litter-free and impressively plentiful; with so many vehicles on so many lines the wait for a ride is never long, in the city centre at least. The rattly old orange buses are giving way to smarter, red-and-grey models with better suspension and ventilation, and to double-length, articulated vehicles on the most popular routes. There are plans to extend the number of bus lanes and replace the articulated buses with double-decker ones, though two-level vehicles are currently illegal. Best of all, there is a growing number of environmentally-friendly electric buses gliding up and down the citys streets, which are quiet, efficient and emission-free.

To take full advantage of the citys buses, buy a transport map from a newsstand or check out Atacs web site: www.atac.roma.it. You can enter your starting point and destination and it will plot your route for you using all forms of public transport, or you can punch in the number of a line to find out where it goes. Be aware that some buses follow different routes on their return journeys, or have a different schedule at weekends or on public holidays; this information can usually be found on bus stop signs as well. Atacs site also carries up-to-date news about deviations caused by road works and demonstrations, extra services laid on for football matches and concerts, and new and altered routes.

Tickets for Romes buses must be bought in advance and stamped once you have boarded the bus. The most popular ticket is the BIT (biglietto integrato a tempo), which currently costs 0.77 and entitles you to 75 minutes travel on the buses, metro, trains and trams, though you can only make one journey by metro. You can also buy daily, weekly, monthly and annual tickets, and there are discounts for the under-20s, over-65s and students aged up to 26. Atac is attempting to crack down on passengers who fail to purchase and stamp a ticket by increasing the frequency of inspections on its services. If you are caught without a validated ticket you face a 51 fine.

The cost of a BIT hasnt risen since 1994, but there are plans under discussion to raise the price to 1 and introduce a new system of granting discounts on passes, in order to cut Atacs 110 million debt by 30 million. The remainder would be cleared by a combination of better management and money from the region and government.

In addition to the lines that follow, some routes are still marked in red on bus-stop signs. These ordinary lines are gradually being transformed into the blue Linee Urbane or maroon Linee Esatte (see below). Also unlisted are the Linee Ultraperiferiche, the suburban bus lines which service the areas surrounding Rome. There are around 60 of these routes, which can be distinguished from the city lines because their numbers are prefixed by a 0.

Linee Urbane

These are the standard urban lines marked in blue on bus-stop signs and transport maps. They are mainly serviced by the new red-and-grey buses, which have electronic signs on board flashing up the end destination. They do not follow a timetable.

Among the most useful urban lines are the number 64, which connects Termini station with S. Pietro station, and the number 46, which links Monte Mario station with Piazza Venezia via Via Aurelia and St Peters. Route 492 sets off from Tiburtina station and takes in Termini, Piazza Barberini and Largo Argentina on its way to the line A metro station Cipro-Musei Vaticani, while line 175 connects Termini with Ostiense station via the Colosseum and Circo Massimo, both on metro line B. The new 665 links Porta S. Giovanni with Tuscolana station, and the M bus carries concert-goers from Termini to the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Flaminio 17.00-24.00.

Linee Esatte

There are currently some 90 Linee Esatte, which run along less popular routes and are the only urban daytime lines that have a timetable. They are marked in maroon on bus-stop signs, which also provide their expected arrival time, though heavy traffic can mean they fall behind schedule.

The number 53 runs from the bus terminal at Piazza Mancini, where buses arrive from Via Cassia, to Piazza S. Silvestro, taking in Via Flaminia, Parioli and the Museo Borghese, while the 311 links Rebibbia metro station with Piazza Sempione in Monte Sacro by way of Via Nomentana.

Linee Express

Express lines run less frequently than Linee Urbane but make fewer stops, providing a fast link between popular destinations spread out across the city. They are mainly serviced by jumbo buses, double-length, green-and-grey articulated vehicles, and are marked in dark green on bus stop signs and transport maps.

There are currently eight express routes, including the number 30 which runs from Laurentina metro station to Piazzale Clodio in Prati via Largo Argentina and Piazza Cavour, and the number 40, which links Termini with Castel S. Angelo. Route 60 connects Ostiense station with Largo Pugliese in Monte Sacro via Via Nomentana.

Linee Notturne

Linee Notturne, or night buses, run from around midnight to 05.00 and follow a timetable shown on bus-stop signs. There are currently more than 20 routes in operation, which are marked in black at bus stops and sport a little owl symbol. Night buses are the only ones on which tickets are sold on board, for a cost of 1, and their frequency varies from every half an hour to every hour and ten minutes.

The 80N runs from Cristoforo Colombo train station near Ostia to Piazzale Ostiense via stations at Ostia Antica, Casal Bernocchi and Tor di Valle, and the 96N runs from Candoni, southwest of Rome, to Piazza Venezia via Magliana, Trullo, Portuense and Trastevere. The 99N links Tarsia to the northwest of the city with Piazza Venezia via Trionfale and Piazza Cavour. The new Nottambula is an electric shuttle that carries revellers around S. Lorenzo, where nocturnal traffic restrictions now apply. A free service, it runs every 10 minutes Wed-Sun, 20.00-03.00, linking the car parks on the edge of the area with the centre of the district.

Electric shuttles

There is a growing number of little electric shuttles scooting their way around the historic centre, with eight seats on board and standing room for around another 20 people. Their large windows make these buses popular with sightseers as well as shoppers, and they can become uncomfortably full at peak times.

The 119C serves the new semi-pedestrianised area in the Tridente, following a circular route from Piazza del Popolo and taking in Via del Corso, Piazza Venezia, Piazza Barberini and Porta Pinciana, while on weekdays the 117 connects Porta S. Giovanni in Laterano with Piazza del Popolo. The 116 links Via Veneto with the Janiculum car park near the Vatican via Campo de Fiori, becoming the 116T theatre line on weekdays 20.00-01.30. The new 115 that scoots around Trastevere connects the Janiculum car park with Ponte Garibaldi.

Tourist lines

Atac runs a sightseeing line, the 110, which loops down from Termini station to Circo Massimo, across to St Peters and up to Villa Borghese, a circuit that takes two and a half hours. The bus sets off from Piazza dei Cinquecento in front of Termini station every half an hour 09.00-20.00, and costs 7.75.

There is also a Basiliche line that links the most famous of the citys basilicas, but at the time of writing this service was suspended with no date given for its resumption.

The Archeobus line runs down Via Appia Antica, stopping off at the catacombs of S. Calisto, S. Sebastiano and S. Domitilla. The journey takes an hour and 40 minutes, but passengers can get on and off the bus as they like. The service leaves Piazza S. Marco next to Piazza Venezia once an hour 10.00-17.00 and costs 7.75. Booking is recommended. For information about any of Atacs tourist lines and for reservations tel. 0646952252.

Private taxibuses

Rome also boasts a private taxibus service that covers the north and northwest of the city. People Service was set up three years ago and runs three lines 07.20-20.45, excluding Sundays and holidays. The taxibuses each hold eight people and travel along set routes, but they make stops wherever passengers request them, traffic allowing.

Linea 1 connects Via di Vigna Stelluti in Vigna Clara at the beginning of Via Cassia with Piazza Augusto Imperatore in the historic centre, via Flaminio and Piazza Cavour, with taxibuses leaving every 15 minutes. Linea 2 links Via di Vigna Stelluti with Piazzale Aldo Moro east of Termini by way of Parioli, Policlinico Umberto I, Citt Universitaria and the station itself on request. On this route the taxibuses run from every 15 minutes to every half an hour depending on the time of day. Linea 3 follows a similar route to Linea 1 but sets off from Piazza Monteleone di Spoleto in the exclusive Fleming area of the city and runs every 20 minutes.

The cost of a journey is 2.60, whether you travel from one end of the line to the other or for just a short stretch in between. A pass valid for 11 journeys costs 26, while a 30-trip card costs 62. Special weekly tickets are also available. Tickets and passes can be bought on board the taxibuses, and anyone with a pass can make a reservation free of charge on tel. 0680215, which is also the number to call for more information.

Trams

Atac also oversees six tram routes in Rome, serviced by sleek, articulated green streetcars and some old-style orange vehicles. The trams snake along rails in the centre of the roads, oblivious to the jams on either side of them.

Tram number 2 connects Piazzale Flaminio north of Piazza del Popolo with Piazza Mancini, just across the river from the Olympic stadium in the northwest of the city, via the Flaminio district. The number 3 links Trastevere station with Valle Giulia north of Villa Borghese, following a very roundabout route through Testaccio and S. Giovanni, and the number 8 runs from Casaletto near Villa Doria Pamphilj to Largo Argentina in the centre, via Trastevere station and Piazza Sonnino.

Tram 5 sets off from Via Amendola near Termini station and takes in Piazza Vittorio and Porta Maggiore on its way to Piazza dei Gerani in Centocelle, an eastern suburb of Rome. Number 14 also starts from Via Amendola and calls at Via Prenestina, but finishes up at Via Togliatti in Quarticciolo, slightly further out. Route 19 links Piazza dei Gerani in Centocelle with Piazza Risorgimento near St Peters, via S. Lorenzo and Flaminio.

Illustration by Edith Schloss.