Investing in transit helps make good cities great

Investing in transit helps make good cities great

Having become much better acquainted with Athens since 2012, one thing I’ve come to appreciate most is its transit system – particularly its metro. Clean (almost gleaming in some stations) and generally efficient, with generous hours and clear verbal and written announcements in Greek and English, it gets me where I need to go with relative ease. Sure, there are the inconvenient occasional work stoppages. The good thing is they are usually well-publicized beforehand such that there’s enough time to determine a workaround.

Another highlight of the system is its clean, convenient and accessible tram that connects the suburbs to Syntagma.

Amid the economic crisis, I find it remarkable that more than half a dozen new stations were opened across all three metro lines in 2013 – a growing system that continued to expand. Given what Greece was going through then, it wouldn’t have been surprising had governments chosen to simply halt all transit-related investment and work.

By contrast, in mid-2015, Vancouver went through an agonizing debate over transit funding. With a spike in ridership following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the system was beginning to burst at the seams with express buses at capacity and ‘Sorry, Bus Full’ signage all too common.

A stubborn government in British Columbia (Canada’s westernmost province) decided to put the question to the people in a referendum, but in such a way the vote was set to fail from the start.

Not surprisingly, when asked if they wished to be taxed more to fund transit, Vancouverites said ‘no.’ Since then, thankfully common sense has prevailed – both from a new provincial government and the federal government led by Justin Trudeau.

It is making massive investments in transit and infrastructure across Canada, recognizing transit is imperative not only to getting people where they need to go, but for the economy, productivity, competitiveness, the environment and so much more.

Here in Athens, the bus network could use new investment. Having spent time in Madrid recently, where the entire bus fleet seemed to be literally shining, the OASA buses are looking very tired. (OASA should take careful note of recent reports of aging buses catching fire in Rome.)

Moreover, they are stretched well beyond capacity with riders practically hanging outside the doors such that they often cannot close. All one needs to do is travel the Number 122 down the coast to see this.

Going forward, with Greece now seeming to turn the page on the last decade, investments in a new bus fleet can’t come soon enough.

Part of building a more efficient transit system involves ensuring riders are paying to get from A to B. Naturally, that involves taking significant steps towards better enforcement. The new ticketing system should help, though its rollout has been awkward at best.

With a limited number of functioning machines at each station, news that OASA plans to reduce the number of ticket-issuing booths will only add to the dysfunction.

In the absence of more machines, one simple fix that might address several issues would be to have uniformed attendants standing nearby. Though the machines are straightforward and operate in Greek and six other languages, locals and visitors alike seem greatly confused at times.

From experience, I can say that having a helpful 30-second tutorial from a friendly transit agent can make a world of difference (as it did upon arriving in Madrid). Having a brigade of agents on hand may also help curb some of the free ridership taking place while providing local employment.

With new businesses and record numbers of visitors coming to Athens, and the city-changing Elliniko project on the horizon, the time for making further improvements to a great system is now.

Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant currently based in Athens.

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