One-track minds

Many Greeks have in the past viewed public transport like a visit to the dentist – something to be avoided until all other options have been exhausted. But the mother of all toothaches can make you reconsider things. There seems to be no doubt from the statistics provided by transport authorities that the economic crisis has prompted more Athenians to use the metro and buses every day. The number of passengers on the metro is up by some 3 percent this year compared to last, while the rise on the buses is estimated to be as high as 20 percent. More of us are realizing that at a time when every euro counts, being able to travel from one side of Athens to the other with that very same euro is an offer not to be sniffed at. Public transport in Greece has always been cheap but it could never match the appeal of traveling by car. The opportunity to display upward mobility through car ownership and to sit in an inviolable personal space with air freshener and air conditioning close at hand was much more appealing than putting yourself at the mercy of timetable vagaries, congested carriages and smelly armpits. The Athens metro, which went into operation a decade ago, has gradually changed this perception. For 10 years, it has provided a clean, safe, punctual and efficient service. After the initial droves, a steady trickle of city dwellers has graduated to this form of transport. Each year, its trains travel 27 million kilometers and almost 190 million journeys are made. However, as with other modes of public transport, authorities could never crack how to trigger a more substantial movement of people from their cars to their nearest stations. What advertising campaigns, word of mouth and transport policy have failed to do, the economic crisis looks set to achieve instead. The future viability of the transport system could depend on convincing these newcomers not to return to their vehicles. If the economic situation improves, then cheap tickets will not be enough to stop a mass jangling of car keys across Athens. Instead, the weapons in transport authorities’ fight have to be punctuality, reliability and some degree of comfort. The metro has shown that it is capable of all three but other modes – buses and the ISAP electric railway in particular – have a lot of catching up to do. Service on the electric railway has been a disaster over the last year. The continuous closures and delays due to work to replace the track and refurbish stations has taken an inordinately long time. A faster, more frequent service when the work is completed might go some way to making amends. Equally, a reorganization of bus routes so passengers are channeled toward metro stations from where they can get to their destinations quickly without sitting aimlessly in traffic jams will result in a more useful and appealing service. All this requires coordination and money. At the moment, the individual transport companies are acting independently of each other. The government has proposed the creation of a single, metropolitan transport authority – or, as was suggested this week, grouping the fixed-track modes under one body and the buses and trolley buses under another. It certainly seems a logical move but the devil is in the detail: What powers will this authority have? Which ministry will it report to? And, most importantly, how big will its budget be? This brings us back to where we started – the issue of money. The extension of the metro system is hanging in the balance because public funds are drying up. Meanwhile, the Athens public transport companies owe a combined total of 2.5 billion euros. It seems the economic crisis will prove public transportation’s greatest opportunity and its biggest challenge. But having made progress this year, it’s up to authorities to ensure there will be no going back.