Bite the bullet: Go public

As you hurtle through the Japanese countryside at several hundred kilometers per hour on one of the many shinkansen, or bullet trains, that whiz across this archipelago, guaranteed to arrive at your destination bang on time, you cannot help but wonder where it all went wrong for rail travel in Greece. As you are propelled from city to city in blissful silence, as you stretch out to take advantage of more legroom than you could expect in first class on a long-haul flight, as the uniformed conductor enters your rail car and bows before introducing himself, you cannot help but think that you are traveling into the future. Perhaps it is unfair to even attempt to compare the Japanese public transport system to the Greek one or any other in Europe. Comparisons with Japan are unfair because it is a country where bus drivers in Kyoto are equipped with pop-star-style headsets to communicate with passengers. It is a country where cyclists and pedestrians coexist happily on Tokyo’s crowded sidewalks without it all ending in a jumble of mangled limbs, bent wheel spokes and lawsuits. It is also a country where cab drivers in Osaka wear dinner jackets and bow ties while driving their taxis. These are things we are unlikely to witness in Greece but it would be fun to at least see chain-smoking, insult-hurling, fare-fiddling cab drivers in Athens have to don tuxedos for a few days. No doubt they would find a way of passing the cost onto commuters. Maybe they would introduce a dry-cleaning surcharge similar to the Christmas and Easter bonuses they foist on passengers every festive season. Although Greeks as well as other Europeans should look on Japan’s rail and urban transport systems with envy, our failure to catch up with the shinkansen does not mean that we have missed the bus, or the train for that matter. The Athens metro, for instance, can compare favorably to any subway system in the world, including the one in Tokyo. It might have fewer lines and stations than most major capitals, it might have the advantage of being much newer than most subway systems but it is one of the quickest, cleanest, cheapest and most punctual systems in the world. It might be small beer but it is an excellent local brew. The metro rarely suffers from any delays or suspensions. I recently noticed commuters at a station checking their watches when a train arrived at the platform some 30 seconds later than it was scheduled to. This was evidence of how efficient the system has become in the seven years it has been running. The punctuality and efficiency that is being achieved beneath street level in Athens is not being matched by anything that is happening above ground. It would be helpful if trains did not stop running at about midnight and if more stations were added. But overall, we have a system that all Athenians should be proud of. It is by far the cheapest in any major European capital and offers great value for money in a city that has grown to be one of the most expensive in the world. It does not experience the overcrowding of other similar systems, such as the Tokyo subway, where up to 2 million passengers pass through its busiest station, Shinjuku, each day and have to be squeezed onto trains during rush hour. Women and youngsters can consistently feel safe traveling on trains late at night, unlike the London Underground or the Paris Metro, for instance. Commuters rarely have to wait more than a few minutes for the metro. The same goes for most buses and the Kifissia-Piraeus electric railway. Athens’s public transport system is often blamed for the city’s traffic problems but it is about time we realized that Athens has a better transport network than its profile perhaps merits. Greater integration so that the metro, buses, trams, electric railway and suburban railway complement each other would improve the system but there are few journeys in Athens that cannot currently be conducted by public transport. The system’s biggest problem is that not enough Athenians use it. The government has set a target for half of the capital’s commuters to use public transport by next year but appears set to miss this goal. Just over four in 10 currently leave their cars at home, according to a recent survey by the Athens Urban Transport Organization (OASA). Another four in 10 Athenians refuse to part with their vehicles. This is what causes traffic jams, not the so-called failings of the public transport system. In fact, the fiercest critics of the system tend to be the people who refuse to use it or have never used it, usually due to a reluctance to part with the comfort of their car or the prospect that a journey by public transport might involve some kind of inconvenience. It seems that unless some Athenians are able to catch a bus from right outside their homes or park their car on a metro station platform, they are unwilling to brave the transport network. Many of the capital’s residents have failed to comprehend that using public transport involves some sacrifices. You have to run the risk of missing a connection or a last train, you have to be prepared to walk more than two minutes, sometimes in the rain or the blazing sun, you have to be comfortable with the idea that your journey might take a little longer than by car (although it is more likely to be much quicker) and you have to be comfortable to rub shoulders with fellow Athenians. If the city’s residents cannot come to accept this, they are condemning themselves to a life sentence of bumper-to-bumper traffic and letting a 21st century transport system go to waste. Local authorities should also be doing more to encourage people to jump onto buses and trains. One way they could do their bit is by making the walk to and from stations and stops bearable for commuters. Having to negotiate piles of rubbish, parked cars, animal excrement, rubble and various other obstacles while possessing the agility of Fred Astaire to avoid tripping over uneven paving slabs is not going to encourage anyone to ditch their vehicle. This week I witnessed the employee of a coffee shop outside a Tokyo subway station using a pair of large tweezers to remove a toothpick that was lodged between two paving slabs on a perfectly flat and clean sidewalk. Decent sidewalks for Athens? Now, that is futuristic thinking.