Record car sales this year mean less road space

They might moan about endless traffic jams, the high cost of gasoline and interminable searches for parking places but Greeks keep buying new cars, knowing full well the difficulties and expenses involved in car ownership. The latest figures from the Union of Car Importers and Dealers and the National Statistics Service show that Greeks are about to break another record by buying more cars on an annual basis since the first automobile was released on what were then the unpaved streets of Athens. In the first 11 months of this year, 275,784 new passenger vehicles were registered and another 27,497 used cars were imported from abroad. At least half are circulating in Athens. There were a total 303,281 new cars on the roads by November 31, just 1,062 fewer vehicles than the historic high in 2000, when 290,225 new cars and 14,118 used cars went on the roads. Importers believe that record will easily be broken. Whether a status symbol or necessary means of transport, cars have become very accessible for the average Greek due to the reduced costs and the easy terms being offered by banks. At the same time, however, cars have become a large «black hole,» swallowing up working hours and liters of fuel, as well as the introduction of new roads supposed to facilitate traffic and thousands of official plans for regulating traffic and parking. Meanwhile public transport systems, particularly in Athens, are not proving equal to the task. According to the National Statistics Service, from the 1 billion trips made on an annual basis on urban buses in 1971; in 2001, these were down to 795 billion. The advent of the Athens metro improved the situation somewhat, although it has not replaced cars. On the contrary, many of those who used to use buses now prefer the metro; others might have left their cars at home but new drivers have filled the gap. According to the head of the Greek Transport Experts’ Association, the problem in the cities is that demand for roads is always greater than the supply, so if one road is freed of traffic, more cars will start using it. Ring ineffective The public transport system’s inability to provide a valid alternative (for example, the tram) is one reason for the rapid increase in the use of private cars. Another is the «inner ring» (where cars bearing license plates ending in even numbers can only enter on dates with even numbers, the same applying to odd numbers). The introduction of this system in 1980, combined with changing social and economic conditions, led to the two-car household so that a car would always be available for trips into the center. During the 1990s, so many sectors of the community obtained exceptions (doctors, lawyers, journalists, police and the military, among others) and there have been so many violations of the restrictions that the system is virtually ineffective. According to the experts, many people buy a second, usually old, car with a different number plate so as to be able to enter the inner ring every day, thereby putting a burden on their own pockets, the environment and restricting parking places of which there are already too few. According to statistics, one in every three cars that parks within the municipality of Athens is parked illegally. In practice, this means that road space is restricted by 33-50 percent, causing delays and aggravation. Supply vehicles cause further delays by blocking roads and parking spaces, contrary to the practice in other European countries. In 2001, there were 1,085,811 of these – now there are more than 1.2 million. Of course, drivers’ woes are not restricted to the city center. Finding a parking spot in the suburbs is also difficult. Anyone who has traveled abroad and wondered why there are no parked cars on the streets know that it is because buildings have garages or other parking spaces. In Greece, a decision by the Environment and Public Order Ministry to force contractors to build parking spaces in every new apartment block led to a storm of protest. Strangely enough, the ruling is still (fortunately) in force.