NEWS

Traffic brought to a halt 250 times a year

This time it was the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A few years ago it was US President Bill Clinton and last summer it was Pope John Paul II’s turn to paralyze the entire city. Strict security measures, particularly in the post-September 11 era, take precedence over everything else. As a result, while visiting officials have a pleasant stay within their luxury hotel suites and behind the smoked-glass windows of their armored limousines as they speed through empty avenues, Athenians are the ones who pay. Visits such as these may happen only three times within as many years, but things are not much better the rest of the time. On average, about 250 incidents occur every year to block traffic in the city, whether due to a street demonstration, a football game or a marathon. According to a survey by the National Technical University of Athens, delays mount in a geometric fashion after a traffic jam of half an hour. Transport experts told Kathimerini that not much else could be done when foreign officials visited the city. The experts say that instead of worrying about these relatively rare occasions, one should instead focus on the other 250 incidents. There’s (almost) no legal redress It is almost impossible for anyone who misses a business appointment or court case and suffers financial loss as a consequence due to streets being blocked off to obtain compensation. The only such case occurred in 2000 but was not given any publicity. The Nikaia county court awarded financial compensation to a bus passenger on a route delayed for 40 minutes because of a demonstration on Patission Avenue. The plaintiff and other passengers asked the driver to divert from the usual route but both he and the station master refused. The court ruled that the delay resulted in a personal affront to the plaintiff, in that it impinged upon his freedom of choice to dispose of his free time as he wished. Therefore, the delay constituted an illegal restriction of his freedom. This was an exceptional case in which the passenger sued the bus company (OASA). According to lawyer Makis Tzifras, it is impossible to lodge a suit against the State over an issue such as this since there is no specific law on the subject. The only thing one can do is to invoke a traffic jam as a ‘force beyond one’s control’ to justify, for example, missing a court case where one is the defendant. However, it is up to the court to decide whether to accept it or not. Cyber-guide to avoiding the capital’s busiest streets A pioneering system for monitoring traffic, one that would be the envy of many other world capitals and which could ease many of Athens’s traffic problems, has been in operation since 1996, the work of Athens National Technical University. The system makes use of the Public Works Ministry’s existing infrastructure and traffic monitors at various major intersections to create a map which is available on the Internet (www.ntua.gr). By using special algorithms, we convert the measurements into estimates of traffic flow, said Giorgos Yiannis, president of the transport experts’ association. Unfortunately, the full potential of the map has not yet been exploited. Very few people use the Internet to find out about the traffic situation, but it is useful on the occasions when there is a big traffic jam somewhere. Jams cause cumulative chaos Nearly every weekday there is some occurrence that will result in a traffic jam in Athens, according to a survey by the National Technical University. Transport experts told Kathimerini the biggest problems are drivers’ lack of awareness and the absence of any planning on the part of the authorities. When the incident is a minor one, such as a demonstration outside the Ministry for Development, then the problem is restricted to the local area, said Yiannis Golias, a transport expert at the Technical University. With a larger incident, anything that lasts some time and is mobile, the entire area, and eventually the entire city, is affected. According to the study, the time of day that an incident occurs and its individual characteristics play an important role. Approximately one hour after any such incident begins, 20 percent of the roads in the area are blocked completely, 27 percent after 2 hours, and 32 percent after three. The same holds true for the procedure in reverse. After a standstill of three hours, traffic will take another two hours to get back to normal, said Golias. The delays mount up in a cumulative fashion. If a road is blocked for half an hour, resulting in a wait of one hour, then an hourlong incident results in a delay of two hours. After one and a half hours, the delay is quadrupled, after two hours, the delay is multiplied seven times, and after three, a total of 10 hours. Those who suffer the most are the drivers caught at the beginning of the incident, said Golias. On a normal day in the center of Athens, the average traffic speed between 10 a.m. and noon is 18-20 kilometers per hour at most. Speed slows to 13 kph after a half hour traffic jam, to 11 kph after one hour, six kph after two hours, while a delay of three hours stops traffic almost completely. Giorgos Yiannis, president of the transport experts’ association, said that while not much could be done to improve things when foreign guests visit, these incidents only served to highlight the problem in Athens. If we really want to reduce the effects of blocking the city’s streets, we need a more comprehensive approach with regard to planning. Putin’s visit simply showed more clearly Athens’s traffic problem, said Yiannis. More attention should be given to planning a foreign dignitary’s visit, given that roads close not only at the time they pass, but two or three hours earlier. Instead of taking the visitor to visit the Presidential Palace, the Town Hall and the prime minister’s office, these meetings could all take place at the visitor’s hotel or some other specific site. If that is not feasible for whatever reason, the least the traffic police could do is to remain in the area once the cavalcade has passed by in order to direct traffic. What usually happens is that they stop traffic, but as soon as the visitor has passed by, they disappear, leaving drivers to extricate themselves from the mess, said Golias. And rarely do drivers bother to find out traffic conditions beforehand. In other European cities there are signs telling drivers where to go. The greatest confusion arises because not enough information is provided the day before, or even on the same day, so that drivers are often heading for the center of the storm without realizing it. On November 17, during the annual march commemorating the anniversary of the storming of the National Technical University in 1974, there are rarely any traffic problems because everyone knows what happens and stays away from the area, said Yiannis. If you look at the routes taken by the protest marchers, you will see that they are more or less the same every time, said Golias. Therefore, one can actually draw up plans to improve traffic flow in each case. In our study we found that when certain streets such as Solonos close, it is catastrophic. To a certain extent, the traffic police are aware of these bottlenecks and try to keep them open. What we need is a more systematic approach, specific solutions for specific cases, based on the existing infrastructure.