It looks set to become the biggest and most controversial issue for Londoners since the poll tax, forecast the BBCs in-house magazine Ariel. The topic was the mayor of Londons car tax, a levy of 5 to be imposed on every car entering central London from mid-February (see box). Ariel, trailing a BBC London call-in on congestion charging, said Ken Livingstons scheme had aroused enormous confusion, some scepticism and a lot of unanswered questions.

In an analogous move, Romes mayor Walter Veltroni has, for the time being anyway, turned much of the most fashionable quarter of the capital the so-called Tridente into a vast, semi-pedestrian area, code-named ZTL-A1. Though much smaller than its London counterpart, the project has nevertheless stirred up a cloud of scepticism and protest.

The Trident, Neptunes fishing-spear, has since late Renaissance times signified the crammed wedge of spectacular wealth, art and history that stretches from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia, initially along the spears three prongs, Via del Babuino, Via del Corso and Via di Ripetta, embracing Piazza di Spagna and the hulking mausoleum of the Emperor Augustus. ZTL-A1 coincides with the prongs and is today the quietest oasis in the city, which is allegedly the most congested in Europe with 893 cars per 1,000 inhabitants according to the city council traffic department.

Flower bowls have usurped the place of parked cars in Via del Babuino and elsewhere and, although some thoroughfares are still open to taxis and residents with permits, others, such as Via di Ges e Maria, tiny Vicolo DellOrto di Napoli and Via Vittoria, are small, hallowed handkerchiefs of paradise, where the only sounds are voices and the mewing of the odd cat.

However, paradise comes at a cost, in the shape of the white-capped cohorts of the municipal police. Guarding a junction in Via di Ripetta with two cheery policewomen was Antonio Ragucci, drafted in from the Corviale housing block in the outskirts of Rome. Yes, he said, the system is working. But only because were here. The Romans are not the English. Without us standing over them, it would collapse. The only alternative would be to tear out the innards of all the palazzi around here to create parking lots. The residents like it its quieter, cleaner.

One advocate was Gerardo, a military-style porter in Via Margutta, the famous street of artists and antiquarians, now almost carless. Che bello. I think its much better now. Confusione? All gone. The galleries? Theyre happy as well. Look at those two staring into the window there. Before, with the motorini going past ther backs all the time, it was impossible.

A pedestrian in the street, Almerigo Baldini, was not so sure. We Italians always go from one extreme to the other, from the stars to the stalls. Its more liveable now, yes, but its impossible for art dealers here. They need cars on hand all the time. Of course the police turn a blind eye when it suits them, but thats no way to go on, is it? Baldini then revealed that there was rhyme behind his reason: he was an art restorer from another quarter.

This exchange took place in front of La Pallina, a small boutique selling make-your-own jewellery. Inside, the shop assistant Jessica announced: Business is bad, bad, bad. There were, she said, even fewer pedestrians passing by. She looked forlorn among the glitter. The sales assistants were not much happier at David Mayer, a fashion shop in Via del Babuino, with not a client inside despite big sales posters in the windows. Purchases have halved since this thing began, young Catello Argine explained gloomily.

Scepticism about the fairness of the police seemed to be general. I think the pedestrian island idea is good, explained Francesco, receptionist at the three-star Hotel Homs on Via della Vite, but its not the same for everybody. If you know the policeman, hell let you in. If not, he wont. But the tourists like the scheme. Its easier and quieter for them to get around, unless theyre driving their own car because then they cant drop off their luggage.

His counterpart at the nearby Hotel dInghilterra, Antonio, implied perks for clients who go higher up the market. If they forewarn us, we send a fax to the police with their number plate and theres no problem. They get here, and find the chaos they knew gone.

Spokesperson for many of the residents of ZTL-A1, with the most cogent case for resistance to the scheme, is Mario Macetelli, chairman of the Associazione per la Tutela del Centro Storico. For 14 years weve been clamouring for pedestrianisation, but we oppose this attempt because it fits into no overall plan. We feel residents have the right to live in their own quarter with their own cars, so its parking first under the Tiber embankment, for instance and pedestrian precincts next. In the meantime, they should be allowed to park free along the embankment which they are not and there should have been a census of cars to establish the entitlement on the basis of one car per family.

We have an impossible situation on our hands, he added. The present scheme is the usual stop-gap. Weve become so good at it.