The traffic woes of Thessaloniki

A recent meeting organized by the Municipality of Thessaloniki earlier this week to address the traffic problem in the city carried on for two whole days and everyone was present: mayors, prefects, regional administrators, representatives of the business world, from chambers, academics etc. Everyone had something to say. They described the current situation in the darkest tones; they expressed their despair at the fact things have already gone too far; they passed responsibility on to others and by the end of the meeting drew their conclusions. What were they? The same old arguments we have been hearing for so many years, the need for reform and change. None will solve the problem, however. Neither the much-vaunted metro nor the underwater tunnel will provide a solution for the city, whose population and needs have been skyrocketing at dizzying speeds, partly also because of changes taking place in the broader Balkan region. The city feels these changes, its leaders acknowledge them when speaking off the record and a growing number of experts are agreeing that by the time plans which are still on the drawing board are completed, they will be inadequate for meeting the city’s growing needs. Solving the traffic problem in Thessaloniki – that gangrene that eats away at its very fiber – will require bold decision-making, inevitable clashes of interests and, above all, vision. Firstly, the authorities have to clarify whether they have a real plan and whether that plan means a car-friendly or car-hostile city. And this is the crux of the matter, this is what was really at stake at the two-day meeting, which most of the time merely ran in circles around the real issue, with some temporary solutions to the existing problems being put forward. But the city has no more room for cars, nor can half of it be torn down to make space for parking lots and more highways. What is needed, according to those with even the most rudimentary knowledge of such matters, is for the proper infrastructure to be built so that many of those now living in the center of Thessaloniki may be enticed to move to the outskirts. Indeed, a recent study by the Municipality of Thessaloniki revealed that a growing number of residents are leaving the city center and opting for quieter suburbs. They are looking for a better quality of life even though this means having to use their cars to commute into the city for want of an adequate public transport network. So, the solution lies in building a public transport network (small, fast trains, extending the metro, frequent bus routes etc), linking the center with the periphery so that the tens of thousands of people commuting into the city every day can do so without their cars. This is a model adopted by a number of European cities with much larger populations and it has provided a solution to their traffic woes.