Traffic: An ever-worsening nightmare in Athens despite the recent measures

Two weeks before the new Transport Map of Athens is due to be announced and while the authorities and experts are discussing traffic behavior models, Athenian drivers are experiencing a daily nightmare at the wheel. The recently introduced tram and suburban railway are empty. Brand-new buses get stuck in bus lanes that are not respected as off limits. And the stubborn drivers who came back with a vengeance immediately after the Paralympic Games arrive at their destinations after long delays. Traffic jams are back and they’re worse. It’s as if the flyovers, new roads and smart traffic lights disappeared overnight. Worse still, even roads like Vouliagmenis Avenue, which used to be less congested, are starting to get blocked. Where is the Traffic Management Center that cost 44 million euros? And why has the Traffic Monitoring and Control Operations Cubicle (THEPEK) stopped working? «We had a major test and we passed,» said Transport and Communications Minister Michalis Liapis. «The credibility that was gained during the Olympic Games won’t be lost.» But how practical? Not all the new suggestions for dealing with traffic are practicable or effective. They include banning jeeps from the city center because they take up a lot of road space, abolishing the traffic ring (which vehicles with odd and even number plates enter on alternate days) because it is outdated; imposing electronic tolls to discourage car drivers from going downtown, and allowing only vehicles with at least three passengers to enter the city. The Transport Ministry has been engaged in dialogue for a month with the parties concerned. First it spoke to local government, transport experts and the Technical Chamber, then it asked the Public Servants’ Union (ADEDY) and the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE) for their views, among other things, on round-the-clock public transport. But no solution was found, as ADEDY was in favor but GSEE against. The Technical Chamber confined itself to remarks about «white holes» in transport service. «Our effort was not assisted by serious proposals,» Transport Ministry General Secretary Yiannis Golias told Kathimerini. «We haven’t heard inspired opinions about a different plan.» To top it off, there is no sign that the three jointly responsible ministries (Transport, Public Works and Public Order) have managed to tackle it together. While government announcements clearly assert the intention of taking measures to improve the quality of life, in practice, the will power, at least of some authorities, seems weak. Sources say that little emerged from a recent brief meeting between the three ministers, and that Liapis is more or less on his own, having shouldered most of the burden of the new plan. If it is true that Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis is dealing solely with the Personal Data Protection Agency and security cameras, and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias with left-hand turns and constructing parking areas on the outskirts of the city, then it is clear that there is a problem of political consultation over the post-Olympic endeavor. Apart from that, the city is operating on automatic pilot. Most traffic lights are uncoordinated, and the operational rules for the costly THEPEK ceased on October 4. The transport specialists have left their posts, leaving only traffic police. Meanwhile, the Traffic Management Center, a costly but absolutely essential tool for coordinating and intervening in traffic, is not yet working at full speed and is expected to go into full operation in the first week of January. There are indeed 800 so-called smart traffic lights, which were bought and installed on 50 main roads in Athens and connected with 285 cameras that monitor traffic and 700 traffic detectors that send data to 25 electronic road signs. But while the traffic lights work to some extent, they are not coordinated with the other 16,000 traffic lights in the city, most of which have not been plugged into the new system and are still working on data from the 1980s, despite the fact that the amount of traffic on the roads has multiplied exponentially since then. When the system is completed and 2,000 traffic detectors are in place, say Public Works Ministry officials, drivers will get traffic briefings and messages about alternative routes. But it is not yet clear when that will happen.