Traffic chaos grows as Athenians cling to their precious cars

In 2002, Athens’s transport system is still in the Dark Ages. An already unacceptable situation on the roads is constantly deteriorating as 100,000 new cars go into circulation in Attica every year. The State’s inaction as well as that of its citizens, particularly in view of the municipal elections, guarantee that the phenomenon of widespread, generalized traffic jams such as those experienced last December (during the visit to Athens by the Russian president) can be expected to recur regularly, even as far off as 2005. Central and local government authorities have not even decided what their goal should be. They continually promise to resolve the traffic problem although experience of other major cities has shown that as long as there are roads, there will be traffic problems. What our own leaders ignore is something that has quite rightly been attempted and often achieved in the industrialized world – alternative means of meeting people’s transport requirements through efficient public transport and sufficient car parks near public transport facilities. In Athens today, less than 30 percent of people use public transport, in contrast to 50-65 percent in most Western European cities. Central and local government are still trying to deal with the tangled complexity of Athens traffic by focusing their efforts on impressively large projects, forgetting the things that need to be done on a day-to-day basis if a city’s transport infrastructure is to operate properly. They continue to entertain futile hopes that the Olympic Games projects are the way to resolve all the city’s transport problems. They forget that the measures designed for the 17 days of the Olympic Games in 2004 are insufficient for the city’s daily needs. Fear of political cost The two main priorities if the current situation is to be reversed are a comprehensive system of parking management (controlled parking and the establishment of new car parks), and giving priority to public transport on the roads. These ideas, however, come up against the authorities’ overriding fear of the «political cost» entailed in necessary but temporarily unpopular measures, and run counter to the goals of ambitious politicians. Consequently, the policy of inaction is the only one acceptable to all political parties. Since 1997, an inadequate institutional framework has allowed traffic police and municipal authorities to sit back and wash their hands of any responsibility for the lack of policing of illegal parking. The piecemeal distribution of responsibilities ensures that one service designs measures, another carries them out, another drafts regulations, yet another oversees operations and another polices the rules. As a result, projects are carried out that do not meet people’s real needs. For example, the huge investment of 700 billion drachmas (over 2 billion euros) in the two new metro lines would have been better spent if the agencies involved had coordinated their efforts to include construction of eight car parks near metro stations (with a total capacity of 5,500 vehicles), scheduled since 1994, which would allow people to leave their cars close to the nearest metro station. Knowledge that could lead to better transport solutions continues to languish in obscurity. The Metro Development Study (representing an investment of 2 billion drachmas or nearly 6 million euros), the result of four years’ work by transport and other experts, has not been updated and has been filed away in a drawer. Another study has been commissioned from another organization (budgeted at 1 billion drachmas or nearly 3 million euros), although it is likely to meet with the same reaction from the authorities. At the same time, other necessary information on traffic patterns has deliberately not been collected (such as that from the National Roadworks Fund) or has been destroyed before it could be used for evaluating the level of transport services or to back up a rational plan. Technocratic criteria come a poor second and any views than run contrary to official political goals are suppressed. For example, traffic experts correctly predicted that travel time to Athens’s new airport would gradually increase to two hours. These predictions were ignored, however, so as not to cloud the brilliance of the opening ceremony. It is clear that a solution will only be found if we stop believing in magic, if we abandon the unsuccessful feudal practices of the past and embark on a systematic, coordinated and scientifically grounded effort to deal with the complexity of Athens’s transport system. The authorities responsible should first of all begin to cooperate honestly, to agree to courageous, concerted action to systematically manage traffic and parking and to persuade Athenians that they need to change their traffic behavior. Cooperation To implement comprehensive solutions that have been successful in other countries and which transport experts have been proposing for decades, the term of a single government or of one municipal or prefectural council will not suffice. As from the next municipal elections, our politicians have a duty to the history of this city to ensure interparty cooperation, to abandon populist and partisan tactics and to work systematically to take Athens’s streets out of the Dark Ages. That is the only way we can take advantage of the transport infrastructure projects planned decades ago (including the metro, tram, Attiki Odos, unification of archaeological sites and improved bus routes) and bring about the gradual rejuvenation of Athens. Then maybe sometime within the next decade, Athenians will begin to enjoy a safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly transport system. – Giorgos Yiannis is president of the Association of Greek Transport Experts and lecturer at the civil engineering faculty of the Athens National Technical University. Projects favor private vehicles at the expense of public transport Authorities in other European countries are trying to get traffic moving faster and more safely by increasing public transport use and the number of parking spaces. In Athens, however, local authorities continue to search in vain for ways to facilitate the movement of private cars (by means of flyovers such as on Kifissias Avenue and the coast road). Considerable sums of money are spent for no good reason, such as some 3 billion drachmas (or 8.8 million euros) on studies for the construction of flyovers and other projects, without previously ascertaining the need for them; eventually most of these proposals are rejected as unnecessary. On the other hand, the government is claiming it will complete the construction of substantial projects aimed at promoting the use of public transport such as the suburban railway (a project that will take 15 years to complete) by 2004. This is a utopian goal indeed, given the State’s well-known inability to carry out infrastructure works in the public interest, both in the time-consuming phase of calling for tenders and the technically difficult phase of construction. We are still designing, executing and operating transport projects in an arrogant manner, with no regard for the needs of the public. Athens’s leaders have spent neither the time nor the money required to work together with the public, doing so only when the latter has recourse to the Council of State, resulting in delays and budgetary problems such as those with Attiki Odos and the Piraeus flyovers.

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