Athens 2004 organizers plan to tame unruly taxi drivers

First there’s strategy: maneuvering among others trying to hail a cab. Then precision: yelling out your destination as the cabbie rolls by and decides whether to stop. Followed by agility: squeezing in with other riders. And, for tourists and other newcomers, there’s the final test of making sure you are not scammed. «We are just small-time con artists,» admitted Lefteris Terzakis, head of the taxi owners’ confederation of Greece, who complained that more serious corruption was rampant in the country. Organizers of the 2004 Olympics want to tame Athens’s mean streets. They plan to create a hand-picked fleet of well-mannered, professional – and honest – cab drivers for the Games. «They will go through seminars. They will be informed about the behavior they must have as professionals… simply to behave well to the customers,» Terzakis told The Associated Press. The selection process should begin later this year as Olympic planners start to hone transport plans. At least 1,500 of the city’s 30,000 cabbies will be chosen to work during the Games using cars of Olympic sponsor Hyundai. They will be paid a flat fee of 120 euros ($117) for a 12-hour shift ferrying around International Olympic Committee officials and other VIPs, said Terzakis. Another 600 cab drivers will get permits to drive their taxis on some of Athens’s major roads and make airport runs – roads that will be generally closed to vehicles without special passes. Beginning next year, 2004 organizers will start several one-day sessions on «Olympic protocol, safe driving techniques and information… Intensive language courses in the history of Greece and the Olympic Games are also on the agenda,» said Panos Protopsaltis, the 2004 transport director. Athens is not the only place where taxi drivers have been polished before an international sporting event. For the 2002 World Cup, many Japanese taxi companies – whose drivers are famous for being courteous – offered training in basic English expressions. In Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, taxi drivers were given guidelines on how to treat international visitors. In Athens, some cabbies feel they are the ones being wronged. The big Olympic payday they expected will probably not materialize. Cabbies not selected by Olympics organizers have just a few choices: Take a holiday, stay in Athens with the taxi in storage or try to work on the side streets and in the far-flung suburbs. During the Games, officials are hoping to convince Athenians to leave their cars at home and join spectators on public transport. «The majority will choose to go on vacation because life will be unbearable in Athens,» Terzakis said. «Our problem is not to go hungry.» Taxis in Greece charge among the lowest fares in the European Union and operators have been demanding a hike. The starting charge for taxis in Athens is 73 euro cents ($0.71) with 23 cents ($0.22) per kilometer (0.62 miles). In Rome, for example, the cabs start at 2.33 euros ($2.28) and add on 77 cents ($0.75) per kilometer. Although it is not the only major city in the world where cabbies con passengers, the low fares have made cheating part of the culture. «It is an issue of survival… there is no other way,» said driver Dimitris Lolis. «Only if they swindle people, only that way they will make money.» Taxi drivers in Athens also can be picky about where they will go. Passengers often have a difficult time finding a cab to remote neighborhoods where there is little chance for a return fare. «Twenty taxi drivers go by, four with no one in the cab… and they are saying no,» said Marsha Smith, a tourist from Washington, DC. «If the Americans come (for the Olympics)… they will want to have a cab.» Drive to train city motorists before Olympics TINOS (AP) – Hoping to control Athens’s notorious traffic chaos, Olympic planners said yesterday they plan to educate motorists about driving etiquette – including laws about parking on sidewalks. «It’s difficult to change the habits and culture of people overnight,» said Panos Protopsaltis, transport director for the 2004 Games. «It will be a combination of communication and law enforcement.» Traffic is one of the biggest problems in this city of nearly 5 million people and 2 million cars. Ensuring that athletes and officials can get to Olympic venues is considered one of the biggest headaches faced by organizers. Illegally parked cars, including a longstanding Athenian habit of leaving cars on sidewalks, are one of the main causes of traffic congestion. Protopsaltis said police will use closed-circuit video cameras along main routes and a fleet of tow trucks to deal with the problem. Police began testing the system earlier this year. «It was introduced this summer with satisfactory results,» Protopsaltis said on the island of Tinos, where organizers are holding a series of meetings. He added that about 1,100 police officers will be also deployed along main streets to ensure that bus lanes are used only to ferry people to and from venues during the Games. Bus lanes are regularly used by cars to skirt traffic jams. A proposed suburban rail line will also help alleviate traffic. Organizers hope that at least part of the network will be ready in time for the Games. «I cannot emphasize the importance of the rail line for the Games,» Protopsaltis said. The rail line has suffered various delays, including a law suit by Athens’s mayor that blocked part of its construction. Originally to run into central Athens, the line will now run from Athens International Airport to the main Olympic stadium during the Games. The International Olympic Committee has expressed concern that the rolling stock for the rail line will not be delivered on time, but the government has said it will rent the parts, Protopsaltis said.