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“There are only cars here, all the time, all day long, and few customers. It’s a lot of noise, but I’m used to it.” When I get home there is silence.” It is Guilhermina Pinto who says it and it may be a good portrait of what Rato Square is.

Running a stationery shop on Álvares Cabral Avenue, near Rato, this 79-year-old lady has seen the ” several changes that [there] have been made”. From the time when there were “several trees and a few stairs in the center of the Square, where everyone walked” to the current situation, where the cars are the majority.

“In the old days, the tramways used to pass through here and there were a lot more people in the street. People walked, it was good for business. Today almost nobody walks.” And those who do walk, walk in a hurry and with fear.

Guilhermina Pinto, owner of a stationery store, complains about the intense noise in Largo do Rato. Photo: Inês Leote

Just Recently, the Mayor of Lisbon, stated that he doesn’t usually ride his bike from his home (in the Amoreiras area) to the City Hall because he has to go through Rato Square. “Largo do Rato, unfortunately, is not prepared as it should be for cyclists,” said Carlos Moedas. 

But it’s not only for those who use the bike that Rato is a hostile place. For those who walk it is also dangerous: too much traffic and excessive speed cars and not enough time to cross the various traffic lights, in addition to the gradients and width of the sidewalks. 

Pedestrians cross the crosswalks quickly, whether the traffic light (there are 37 traffic lights, 19 of which are for pedestrians) is green or red, afraid of the cars. The various crossings make moving around in the Square itself time-consuming.

For example, to go from Rua das Amoreiras to Rua da Escola Politécnica, that is, from one end of the square to the other, you have to cross several crosswalks. With the traffic lights on red, Mensagem’s reporter took more than four minutes to make this path. 

Bicycles and scooters have no space in Rato Square. With the lack of bike lanes, those who pass through there try to pierce the traffic.  

Add to all this the intense noise that makes this place very unpleasant. It is difficult to have a conversation without interruptions on Rato’s terraces due to the noise of buses, tramways, or cars.

Rato’s requalification has not happened yet

Several plans have already been made to requalify the current composition of Rato, but until today it has remained the same. In fact, in 2014, the Lisbon City Council launched the program “Uma Praça em Cada Bairro – intervenções em espaço público” (A Square in Every Neighborhood – interventions in public space), and Rato Square was part of the program, but nothing has been done. This requalification plan was supposed to happen until 2021.

The plan foresaw, among other issues, the widening of the pedestrian zone, new pedestrian routes, the introduction of soft mobility, the reinstatement of tramway Number 24 (already reinstated in 2018), and the possibility of a roundabout.

When questioned by Mensagem about why the Largo has not yet been intervened, the City Hall states that this is due to “the characteristics of this area and the high complexity of the solution to be presented”. In addition, “mobility issues and underground constraints require a detailed analysis”.

The council also says the intervention in Rato’s Square is “one of the priorities of the current administration and the intervention is still planned, outside the scope of the Program “Uma Praça em Cada Bairro”. Although works are planned, “there is no date yet for the start of the works”.

Rita Castel’ Branco, architect, urban planner, and urban mobility expert, says that at the time of the 2014 plan, “the philosophy was different, traffic was reordered without reducing it, and the bicycle was not yet seen as an essential transport mode”.

In total, there are 11 lanes dedicated to road traffic, including BUS lanes. In Rato Sqaure flows converge from Álvares Cabral Avenue and São Bento Street (bottom left), Amoreiras Street (top left), Escola Politécnica Street (bottom right) and Alexandre Herculano Street (right).

For Mário Alves, engineer and specialist in transportation and mobility, “there’s no point in planning roundabouts or bike lanes”. That is “seeing the problem backward”. “First, we have to see what the goal is for the square. If we want the square to have fewer cars and less speed, there’s no point in already thinking about segregating traffic from bicycles and scooters.” This decision is, in the expert’s view, “political before being technical, because it is city policy.”

With or without plans, what happens in Rato affects those who live or work there.

The experience reported by Guilhermina is the theme of the book Pedonalidade no Largo de Rato. Researcher Aymeric Bôle-Richard outlines the history and urban development of Rato and one realizes this space was not always a place of just passing by as it is today, although in the 1930s it became a space made for cars. In his own words (in another book, The Walker and the City), Rato became an “open-air road sewage”.

During these years, Bôle-Richard writes in the book, pedestrians could still cross the Largo “without fear and without great risk of being run over. But this safety was to be short-lived.

In 1934, Square intervened. The gradients were corrected and quotas were made that allowed car traffic to circulate in different lanes, in other words, pedestrians saw cars increase in the square.

The interventions of Largo do Rato in 1934. Photo: Municipal Archive of Lisbon

In the 1940s, an A5 highway was built and buses with two routes started to pass through the square. Crosswalks were introduced and pedestrians had to cross the square at specific points, without freedom, says the book. 

In the 1960s, traffic intensified even more with the opening of the 25 de Abril Bridge and the inauguration of the A2 highway, and in the 1970s there were continuous traffic jams that made the situation “chaotic”.

Excessive Traffic

“What originated this confluence that is Rato Square is also its complexity: all these paths are no longer for people and become for cars”, says Rita Castel’ Branco.

Rato is an important point not only in terms of car traffic, but also of public transport, and because it is a connection point between several points in the city, the traffic becomes excessive, intense, and complex to solve.

Rita Castel’ Branco says that it is necessary to understand the traffic around Rato to understand the problems that happen in the Square. Photo: Inês Leote

For Mário Alves it is important to think about the amount and speed of car traffic that is desired to circulate in Rato. This is the key point. “How many cars do we want here? It can’t be like this. The noise is extremely intense”, criticizes the specialist. And Mensagem witnessed this: while talking to the engineer, in Rato, the conversation was interrupted several times due to the noise of cars and buses.

Vitor Ferreira, a resident in Rato for over 30 years, knows well what it is to live with the noise. “It’s night and day. At night, cars pass by with loud music coming from Bairro Alto. Sometimes I’m about to fall asleep and wake up to the music or the speed of the motorcycles. There are no limits,” he complains. “During the day it’s even worse, the traffic doesn’t stop.

Mário Alves believes that if traffic decreases in the city center, starting in the historical area, traffic would decrease in Rato and other parts of the city, and citizens would start to make other types of trips, using public transportation more.

The researcher gives the example of Pontevedra. The city removed car traffic from the historic center and it became more attractive and safer for citizens who started to use soft mobility and public transportation and the historic center gained another life.

Mário Alves defends the reduction of traffic in the historic center of the city. Photo: Inês Leote

The traffic reduction around Rato is equally important to Rita Castel’ Branco. As Rato is a place of connection it is “important that a wider area of the city is analyzed”, to understand the confusion that happens there.

The specialist says that much of Rato traffic comes from D. João V Street and could be thought of other alternative routes that do not require this passage. The traffic that comes from this street comes with “excessive speed” and is intense, converging on Rato.  

In addition, “the connection between D. João V Street and Alexandre Herculano Street is for cars that come from the highway and want to go, for example, to Liberdade Avenue. This traffic could go through the Amoreiras Tunnel and, this way, the traffic in Rato would be substantially reduced”, she suggests.

Between São Bento Street and Álvares Cabral Avenue the traffic is often conditioned. Photo: Inês Leote

There could also be a connection between São Bento Street and D. João V Street managed with traffic lights. São Bento Street could have only one direction, to “create a good sidewalk,” says the expert.

The way that Sol ao Rato Street is organized also does not make the situation in Rato any easier. This street is a connection to Campo de Ourique and is under pressure because it is used as a connection to the highway. “Suddenly, a small street is an access to the highway,” says Rita Castel’ Branco.

Removing some bus stops and placing them, for example, on Alexandre Herculano Street, could also reduce the complexity of the Square, from the architect’s perspective. “I can’t re-design Rato and accommodate everything that is here again. I have to think about what can be removed from here”.

The slope of Rato Square makes the place even more confusing. Photo: Inês Leote

Bad sidewalks

Besides the mess that traffic is, the sidewalks are also disorganized. If Rato is an interface, “it is important that it is well connected in terms of sidewalks and it is not”. The specialist highlights important routes without pedestrian conditions São Bento Street and Sol ao Rato Street. 

“Sol ao Rato Street has terrible sidewalks and people always walk in the street. If with these awful pedestrian conditions we have so many pedestrians walking on this street, what would it be like if this street had good conditions?”, asks Rita Castel’ Branco.

There are also barred sidewalks that force pedestrians to detour. “At the exit of São Bento Street, as the crosswalk is offset from the desired line, the sidewalk is barred. And since the sidewalk is about a meter long, people try to manage their circulation”. In other words, they divert to the road, in a place where cars and buses are often at a “stop-and-go” because of the traffic lights on Álvares Cabral Avenue, which constrain the traffic flow. 

Railed sidewalks force pedestrians to take a detour in São Bento Street. Photo: Inês Leote

The same is true at the end of Escola Politécnica Street. “The numerous barriers make it impossible to cross pedestrians outside the crosswalks. It’s a terrible way to solve the fact that the crosswalk is not in the pedestrians’ desire line,” says Rita Castel’ Branco.  

The sidewalks lack safety and comfort. But both Mário Alves and Rita Castel’ Branco believe that they could be used to their full potential and help boost the local economy.

“These terraces are not very profitable, because few people like to be here. If there were fewer cars, there would be about 50 or 60 people. Even for the economic vitality of the city, it is fundamental to put an end to this open-air sewage,” says Mário Alves, quoting Bôle-Richard.

“With wider sidewalks, the esplanades would be much more pleasant and the stores could have expositors,” adds Rita Castel’ Branco.

An unsafe space also for bicycles and scooters

The lack of bike lanes and the steep slope are factors that inhibit Carlos Moedas and other Lisboners from passing or going to Rato by bike or scooter.

If traffic slows down, there is room for bikes and scooters. But for this, it is “necessary to ensure that there is a consistent cycling network in the axes around and that Rato does not represent a breaking point,” explains Rita Castel’ Branco

And the lack of bike lanes on Rato makes it a breaking point. “This Square has all the conditions for a person to not feel safe. The volume and speed of traffic on Rato are not compatible with riding a bike,” says the architect.

About the slope, the specialist says that “the electric bike flattens the slopes” and, therefore, “becomes a non-issue” for bicycles.

Fight pollution with more trees

Because of excessive traffic, Rato is a polluted place. A 2020 report from the Lisbon City Council on air quality concluded that the Rato Square/ Marquês de Pombal / Liberdade Avenue axis is one of the most polluted places in the city due to traffic.

One of the ways to face this can be to make Rato greener. However, it is necessary to take into account that “even if the traffic decreases there will always be traffic”, clarifies Rita Castel’ Branco. Thus, “it is convenient to have trees that create a green barrier and relieve the road pressure”.

To face the pollution, the trees would also be a way to combat “the heat island” that is Rato, says Mário Alves. In the summer “with so much heat it is impossible to cross Rato”, criticizes Guilhermina, the stationery shop owner, who “would like to see more trees”.

To move towards an effective change in Rato, it is necessary “to communicate to people that they will have to reduce the use of the car, walk more, use more transportation and bicycle”, says Mário Alves, suggesting that if citizens could visualize a new composition of the Largo, they would be more aware and open to a change in Rato.

You can also read this article in Portuguese.

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