Disorganization stalls urban mass transit

A few days ago, a minor miracle occurred in eastern Attica. Representatives from the area’s major transportation bodies – the Intercity Road Transport Companies in Greece (KTEL), the suburban railway, the metro, the tram and Thermal Buses SA – gathered to discuss how to coordinate the transport of passengers from the Attica towns of Lavrion and Porto Rafti to the center of Athens. These transport officials wanted to find ways that would help residents of eastern Attica – the country’s most traffic-congested area – get around easier. The efforts did bear fruit, introducing a three-day pilot program that would issue single tickets that could be used for 90 minutes to take various forms of mass transit from the towns around Attica into Athens. The concept shows promise: Commuters could get around faster, while KTEL and other mass transit companies could add clientele. Still, despite such efforts, people don’t want to give up their cars, even though several means of mass transport – the metro, the suburban railway, the tram, new buses – have materialized in recent years. Just look at the congested roads and large traffic jams in central arteries during peak hours. Some 15,000 registered taxis – which operate without regulations – congest the roads. The ring road fills to overflowing every day, since there is no way to police its 55 to 60 entrances. Some 350,000 road permits are issued annually for automobiles, motorcycles and mopeds. Data show that auto use in the area has risen instead of dropped. The management of mass transit has also splintered off to various ministries – Transportation, Environment, Planning and Public Works, Public Order, Foreign Affairs and Economy – which often don’t communicate with each other. Meanwhile, there is no umbrella organization overseeing the work in these ministries. Add to that a lack of boldness to actually realize initiatives and the constant recalculation of each initiative’s political costs, and the whole thing leads to complete inertia. The proposed Metropolitan Agency, which is supposed to be the model for Greece’s big cities, is considered the only way out of the Greek traffic problem. Michalis Liapis, who is the minister for transport and communication, wanted a great deal out of the proposal, but few of his plans have been realized. The proposed single agency, which is supposed to connect those agencies responsible for various transportation projects in Attica, has yet to start up a year after its formation was announced. Also, according to reliable sources, the political leadership of the Transport and Communications Ministry has not even broached the subject of calibrating Attica’s mass transit effort. The result is a dead end for Athenian roads. Coordinating the issue The traffic-congestion issue cannot be solved just by the creation of new works. American transportation specialists say that coordination is needed – along with bold decisions to spend enough money for quality work, which will ultimately be judged by its effectiveness. So what’s next? A Ministry of Coordination to organize everything? Proposals to solve the problem die in ministry offices, where poorly organized ministers and their staff are overwhelmed by their responsibilities and lose the relevant proposals and studies. Problem-solving efforts are undermined, forgotten or lost in the shuffle because the offices can’t coordinate their work. Even putting 500 meters of bus lanes into use requires the participation of the following ministries: Transport and Communications, to program and study the project as well as construct the works and equipment and pay for its maintenance costs; Environment and Public Works, to approve traffic repercussions and permit new traffic measures; Public Order, to supervise bus lanes and keep track of violations; and Economy and Interior, to distribute any revenue gathered from violations. The same holds true for parking. The Environment and Public Works Ministry must handle construction of parking garages, the local authority must take on roadside parking, the Athens metro and the Attica Metro Operations Company (AMEL) must deal with transport stations and their use, and the city’s traffic and municipal police monitor illegal parking. Finally, the ministries of Interior and Economy handle the distribution of revenue from violations. There are more examples of half-realized plans. OASA owns 15 tow trucks and has ordered another five to move illegally parked vehicles. The Ministry of Public Works has given OASA three cranes to do this, but little has been done so far. Meanwhile, the City of Athens has also offered police officers to monitor 80 areas where people illegally park in the city center, especially in areas that block passage for city buses. But the officers showed up a few times, then stopped coming. No matter what, it’s always the same old story: Big and difficult projects get money, but the easy ones that will actually coordinate the big ones and lessen traffic congestion do not. For example, the suburban railway arrived in Corinth after several delays, yet there is still no system to get commuters from their homes to the stations. A few municipal buses provide service, but only until the afternoon. After that, nothing. «We have already done enough studies which have cost Greek taxpayers a lot of money,» Panayiotis Papadakos, president of the Hellenic Institute of Transport Engineers, told Kathimerini. «And we will still do more. But that’s not enough.» Adds Antonis Stathopoulos, a professor at the School of Civil Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens and also a traffic expert involved in putting together the Single Agency: «… If these problems are not solved, coordinated organization cannot emerge. No one is bold enough to say out loud to citizens that quality costs.»

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