Capital gains

This morning, Athens’s shiny new trams will roll from the heart of the capital, Syntagma Square, down to the coastal suburbs of Neo Faliron and Glyfada. Many major infrastructure projects have been completed recently and will remain as part of the Olympics’ legacy to Athens but something about the tram gives it a special symbolic significance. It is at once a return to a more romantic age when cars did not dominate our lives and at the same time it is an investment in hope. The trams, which were banished in order to make way for cars (with the last one rolling in October 1960), are striking back and are here to reclaim what they lost to the private car, because, unlike other projects that have been aimed at complementing the dominant car, the tram has taken up large parts of major thoroughfares. It is as if it is saying to the car, «I am coming to take something back.» That is why the tram is more significant than it would be in another city perhaps. It is the most visible part of the new mass transportation network that has developed in time for the Olympic Games and it will serve as a signal as to how well the entire system is working. Officials say that they expect the tram to serve some 80,000 passengers over its 24-hour days. Officials who predicted how many people would use other major projects, such as the metro extensions and the Attiki Odos highways, found that their most optimistic forecasts were exceeded by the Athenians’ enthusiasm for these projects. The tram has a tough act to follow. And one wonders whether the route chosen – through the densely built suburb of Nea Smyrni – was the wisest. On the one hand, the tram will serve the greatest possible number of passengers but the stopping and starting also means that it may not turn out to be the fastest way to get from the city of the center to Glyfada or Neo Faliron. The proof of success will appear when the Olympics are over, when Athenians choose the ways in which they move about when all the visitors are gone and the difficult traffic measures lifted. It is then that we will begin to see what all the investment in these great projects was all about. In the mad rush to get ready, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that when the visitors are gone, we will find ourselves in a new city. But it is not only the look and feel of the place that will have changed. It is likely that we too will have been transformed. The Olympics are a seminal event which focus the eyes of the whole world on one city, forcing its people to see themselves as the world sees them. But, when we find ourselves moving about more easily and getting more done in less time, it is not only our perceptions that will have changed but also the way in which we act. And our roomy, air-conditioned trams will be a good place to look at each other to see what the city has done to us.

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