Athens drivers in despair over daily odyssey for parking space

Drivers of private cars in Athens face a frustrating and stressful odyssey in heavy traffic every day – made worse by the construction work for the Olympics – only to have to spend even more time looking for a place to park. In some parts of the city, even the mention of the word «parking» prompts a bitter laugh, and out of desperation drivers often park illegally, causing further traffic problems. Meanwhile, all kinds of vehicles block sidewalks, making life difficult for pedestrians as well. Traffic experts say the problem is due to a complete lack of planning and strategy, creating a city that is hostile to its residents. Attica’s road network was designed to accommodate 430,000 cars. Today there are an approximate 2.2 million in circulation. Double this figure to include the cars that pass through the city on a daily basis and at some point have to park. The Environment and Public Works Ministry’s recent move to have parking spaces in every new building will improve the current situation only in theory. Traffic experts say this is not enough, and point out that in other European countries measures to improve the parking situation began in the early 1970s. Thus the only thing to be hoped for is that it prevents the situation from worsening. Elsewhere in Europe, steps are continually being taken to restrict parking in city centers. For example, in London there is a ceiling on the number of parking places in each building, a move aimed at creating counterincentives to people using their cars. In Greece, there are at the moment 420 cars for every 1,000 people, a number that is likely to rise to 550-560 in 2010. «The sudden reduction in the price of cars is responsible for the sharp rise in the numbers of cars on the road,» said Yiannis Golias, a traffic engineer at the National Technical University. «Public transport does not provide a viable and fast way of getting around,» he added. The urban bus company (OASA) provides 1 square meter of space for every four passengers (seated and standing), whereas in other countries the rule is one-and-a-half persons standing per square meter, apart from seated passengers. Athenians had great hopes that the metro would solve many traffic woes, but this has not happened. According to a survey by the National Technical University, the main reason people do not use the metro is because it simply doesn’t go far enough, and parking is still a problem. The reasons many Greeks move about is another factor. In contrast to people in other countries who simply travel from home to work and back again, Greeks are continually on the move. «Most Greeks have two jobs and then before they go home at the end of the day, there is usually some family or social obligation to fulfill,» said Golias. These «itineraries» can never be fully covered by the inadequate public transport grid which is used by 33-34 percent of those on the move in Athens, a proportion that in other countries is reversed. In Athens, over 100,000 cars are parked every day in the inner, historic center, of which only 65,000 are legally parked or in private parking lots. In busy shopping districts such as Kolonaki, Glyfada or Kifissia, local residents’ cars alone are enough to fill the existing places. «It is inexcusable to develop shopping areas, supermarkets or entertainment centers such as multiplex cinemas without providing parking for customers,» said Professor Giorgos Yiannopoulos of Thessaloniki University and director of the National Transport Institute. He blames the lack of legislation that allows services to grant licenses to these huge complexes without requiring the provision of parking places. The Municipality of Athens is trying to help by clearing away all the abandoned cars scattered about the streets, freeing a good deal of parking space. «Over the past three years, we have collected 35,000 cars and 4,000 motorcycles. Every day, 25-40 cars are sent to the Public Property Management Organization,» said Deputy Mayor Aris Stathakis. The municipality is also planning to reintroduce parking meters in the city center next spring. «After the previous parking meter system was discontinued, it resulted in more cars entering the city and a 15 percent reduction in traffic speed on avenues leading in and out of the city,» said Golias. Of course, as Yiannopoulos pointed out, to be effective any system needs to be strictly policed. Mayor Dora Bakoyianni responded promptly to an appeal by Environment and Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou to municipalities to move ahead quickly with reintroduction of the parking meters. Bakyoianni is also planning to hire another 500 municipal police officers next spring. An hour’s parking will cost drivers 1 euro. The meters will initially be installed in the busiest shopping streets and not in densely populated residential areas such as Kypseli, Ambelokipi and Pangrati, which will be included in the second phase of the program.