Daily nightmare in Athens

This past summer, the country suffered devastating and deadly forest fires that razed thousands of hectares of land and claimed human lives. The country experienced an unprecedented tragedy. But every year in Athens we are witnesses to another tragedy: It is not as dramatic nor as intense as the battle against the flames and the television stations do not cover it with special news flashes. For it is a tragedy to which we have become accustomed. On Thursday, October 18, a bus strike and a student protest served to remind us of the sheer torture of circulating in Athens. That day, thousands of Athenians spent two, even three hours trying to get to work. An invisible, heartless system condemned them to immobility and frayed nerves, as others, not far away, were using those two or three hours to snooze in bed or relax, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, exercising, whatever. Coming to terms with a lousy way of life is an Athenian trait par excellence, but it is also plain stupidity. How else can we explain the manifest inability of our politicians to do something about this inexcusable day-to-day situation, which undermines the quality of life of millions of people? The tragedy Athens is experiencing today is not just the result of zoning problems that have cropped up over the years as the city expanded (as convenient a conclusion as it may be), but also due to our stubborn refusal to learn something from the example set by other cities that faced similar problems and to undertake our own initiatives based on their experience. Two examples: Rome closed off the historical city center to all non-commercial vehicles, except those of local residents. It did so to protect its citizens’ health, the monuments and tourism industry and, by extension, the country’s economy. They did this knowing that their public transport system was weak. People understood that the measure was for the good of all. Now an example from Greece: Last winter, a much-maligned controlled parking system was introduced in parts of central Athens. Its success is probably the best news we have heard in several years in this beleaguered city. The City of Athens announced that the system would be expanded to another two neighborhoods, but we haven’t seen this happen yet. A serious regional authority and Ministry of Transport should by now have been slicing up a map of Attica into zones of implementation. It is time to accept that once we move our cars, our chances of finding a free parking space in the city center are very slim. There is, however, a small silver lining. At the head of the Ministry of Transport and Communications is a young, liberal, rational, open-minded politician, Costas Hatzidakis. All he has to do is live up to his reputation and take a few bold initiatives on the traffic issue. Millions of Athenians would be grateful.