Hell is other people

Athens traffic is a mess. And it is getting worse every day. Everyone wants to be mobile and everyone wants to make things easier for him/herself. And everyone ends up stuck in a traffic jam. We have created a city that is hell to live in. And it’s mostly because of the cars – and our inability to make decisions that will make life easier. This may seem an exaggeration. But let’s look at the city a little more carefully; let’s imagine Athens without cars. It is built on a coastal plain ringed by mountains and is rich in beauty and history. The climate is good, with minimal humidity. The sky is a brilliant blue. The main avenues and even side streets are lined with trees. With a few more parks, the city might even rival some of the world’s great cities for «livability.» It’s hills – Lycabettus and Philopappou especially – provide the opportunity for beautiful walks on their pine-covered slopes. The Acropolis and other sites of unique interest are dotted about the city center. Efforts have been made to «unify» these islands in the city’s sea of cement, but there’s still a long way to go before one can walk between all of them without running the risk of being hit by a car or motorcycle on streets or pedestrian routes. Despite its problems – such as narrow sidewalks in many places and the very dense construction of apartment blocks – Athens could be a pleasure to live in and to walk and cycle around. So what has gone wrong? There are far too many cars – 2.8 million of them – in streets that cannot cope. The odd-even system which tried to halve the number of private vehicles in the center was adopted in 1982, when there were 430,000 cars. That number has risen six-fold. The odd-even system is hopelessly outdated. Experts now say that in two years’ time, like a heart whose arteries are choked with fat, the city will stop. That might not be such a bad thing, seeing as then people will be forced to stop using their cars all the time. However, the problem in Athens is not only the number of cars jammed bumper to bumper, the pollution and the intolerable noise that pierces the city’s air all day and night. What is equally bad is the way parked cars fill every possible space. They block sidewalks, they eliminate visibility at crossroads and they obstruct wheelchair ramps. They prevent the smooth flow of traffic, including buses. Of the 100,000 cars parked in the city center each day, 35,000 are there illegally. One solution to the problem would be the speedy adoption of the congestion charge that has been so useful to London. But the quickest and perhaps most effective way to speed up traffic and also improve the residents’ quality of life would be the strict enforcement of parking regulations. It would not take much more than the certainty of a hefty fine to ensure that drivers either find legal parking spots or use the mass transit system. The benefits would be evident immediately – to commuters, to residents and to those who need to use their cars. The fact that the authorities do not enforce this is a measure of how little they – and the public to which they ought to be accountable – care about the common good.