Athens’s parallel universe

Transportation in Athens is one of the most important things determining the quality of life of its residents and the memories that visitors take home with them. Cars – parked or in motion – swarm over every inch of road and sidewalk. Motorcycles rumble and screech between vehicles and pedestrians, ignoring all laws and all logic. Delivery trucks, disgorging clouds of diesel fumes, block traffic lanes whenever and wherever they see fit. Taxis crawl along the curb, fishing for more customers to jam next to the trapped wretches already suffering from the heat, the sweat, the cigarette smoke, the agony of a missed appointment. Buses and trolley buses arrive two at a time or not at all as anxious passengers overflow from the narrow sidewalks onto the street. It takes nerves of steel, a sound mind and a healthy body to choose to enter this hell, without knowing when you will reach your destination or, if you are driving, where you will park. And yet – as if in another world, where things are turned upside down – the underground railway is as close to transport heaven as one can find in a busy city. Trains along the three lines are clean and run on time. People are polite. No one eats, no one smokes, no one drinks. It is as if they have all stepped into a parallel universe where professionalism and civility hold sway. When the extensions to the 131-year-old Line 1 opened in January 2000, Athenians flocked to the subway like children entering a world they never expected to see. The stations and trains were new, but so was the experience of traveling together with hundreds of fellow citizens in a clean and calm environment. The spotless stations are oases of functional design in a city crammed with ugly buildings trying to eliminate the past and grab every inch of space that they can get away with. The Athens metro even offers something that some major cities do not – a direct link to the airport. The problem is that between the subway’s heaven and the hell of our streets there is no purgatory. Parking areas around many metro stations are a disgrace, with few parking spots and no enforcement of any regulations; the result is chaos, as drivers block passages and prevent other cars from getting in or out. Sidewalks around many stations are broken or slippery or blocked by motorcycles and cars, making it difficult and, when wet, dangerous for people to get to the stations. The extension to Line 3 which linked the city center to Athens International Airport in time for the 2004 Olympics was, after many delays, completed in a mad rush. Some stations could not be built in time and are now under construction. This will entail shutting down Line 3 from the Ethniki Amyna station at an undisclosed date for about six months, so that suburbs with hundreds of thousands of people can be better served. The metro will be better for this. But this is also the time to insist that the government make good on its predecessor’s promise to provide adequate parking areas around the new and older metro stations, as well as the suburban rail stations. This simple and relatively cheap step will represent a huge stride toward getting people out of their cars, freeing lanes for taxis and buses – and making life easier for Athenians and their visitors.