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Traffic is Turning Athens into a Huge Parking Lot

Traffic Athens
Traffic congestion in Athens has reached a breaking point. Credit: Orestis Panagiotou/AMNA

The volume of traffic in Athens was always a pain for residents and visitors alike, but since the lifting of the coronavirus restrictions, moving around the Greek capital at all has become a nightmare.

Since early September, Athenians have spent hours every day stuck in traffic. At times the city simply turns into a huge parking lot. “Traffic in Athens is unprecedented. It is heavier that the ‘good old times’ before the era of the bailouts,” a traffic policeman tells Greek Reporter.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, observed that one can rarely see another passenger in a car. “People are afraid to use public transport due to the pandemic and they have turned to their private vehicles,” he explains.

He notes that Athens was designed in the 19th century to serve a population of 200,000. The city’s road infrastructure cannot cope with four million residents. It completely lacks major avenues to enter and exit the city center, he adds.

There are currently about 2.3 million vehicles in the region of Attica. Authorities hope that with the coming of the mikros daktylios, the Small Ring, on October 25, the center of Athens will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

The scheme applies to the inner city where vehicles up to 2.2 tons are only allowed entry to the area on alternating days, depending on the last digit of their license plate (odd or even). The scheme is active from Mondays through Thursdays from 7:00 AM – 8:00 PM and Fridays from 7:00 – 3:00 PM.

It remains to be seen whether the new ring road system will have a major impact on traffic, however. Vasilis Georgopoulos of Sights of Athens,  a tour bus operator, told Greek Reporter that the volume of traffic currently in Athens is larger than what is usually observed during the Christmas period.

“Until recently we could make a tour from Piraeus to Acropolis in 75 minutes. Now we need two hours for the same distance… Touring the historical center now takes one hour and half, at least 25 minutes more than before.”

He laments that public transport is not sufficient for the needs of the Greek capital. He says that the ring restrictions will give a breather, “because a few are just taking a ride to Athens for fun. We must ensure that people can get to their jobs.”

Traffic now exhausting, frustrating

For taxi driver Elias Bellos, traffic is exhausting and frustrating. “Customers and taxi drivers are angry with the volume of traffic. We are stuck at a snail’s pace for hours. Many days I am so exhausted, that I go to work further away from Athens, in other towns of Attica,” he tells Greek Reporter.

“Traffic is bad irrespective of time of day. And it’s not just in the center of the city. Many suburbs are experiencing the same problem. In the past, we knew that on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and evenings, traffic would be bearable because stores are closed. Now this is no longer true.”

He notes that the situation is becoming worse when foreign dignitaries visit Athens or when there are demonstrations downtown. He adds that there has also been bad planning for road works. “On Poseidonos Avenue, the major artery that connects southern Athens to the center, there are currently road works taking place. Why they did not plan their works during August — when Athens is relatively empty — instead of October?” Bellos ponders.

Traffic increases as economy recovers

For Konstantinos Kepaptsoglou, a lecturer and traffic expert at the National Technical University of Athens, the traffic jams in the Greek capital are not a surprise.

“For a start, people are reluctant to use public transport due to the pandemic,” he tells Greek Reporter. “As the economy recovers, first from the financial crisis and then from the pandemic, so do Greek drivers return to their cars. The return of economic normalcy leads to increased mobility. I was expecting this to happen in 2019. But the pandemic stopped this happening then. It’s happening now.”

Kepaptsoglou says that there is “no magic wand” to reduce traffic congestion. “The space in Athens is limited. When you have limited space and an increased use of vehicles, congestion is inevitable.

“After a 10-year-long economic crisis citizens turn back to our private vehicles. It is only human. They feel free to travel and, in addition, they have the money to travel. It’s called freedom.”

Tolls to stem rise of traffic in Athens?

The traffic jams in Athens have forced government ministers to examine more radical solutions to the problem.

Kostas Karamanlis, Greece’s Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, revealed recently that the issue of paying tolls inside the4 city “is on the table.” Tolls are seen by some experts as a way to reduce congestion and improve air quality. The measure has been introduced, with variations, in several cities around the world over the last decades.

However, the idea was dismissed by the government spokesman the next day. “There are no plans to introduce tolls in Athens,” said Giannis Economou at a press briefing.

Kepaptsoglou tells Greek Reporter that introducing tolls is problematic. “It is a very unpopular scheme. It is class-based. Well-off citizens could afford to enter the city, the less well-off would be barred.”

He adds that some form of congestion pricing has been introduced in a few European cities but it is not equitable because it places an economic burden on neighboring communities, has a negative effect on retail businesses and on economic activity in general, and represents another tax levy.

Especially in Athens, he notes, toll systems would also technically be very difficult to establish because there are so many narrow entrances and exits to the city center. It will take time to plan and use the available technology to establish a toll system.

For Kepaptsoglou, the traffic congestion in Athens can only be solved if citizens make more reasonable use of their vehicles.

He notes that there are other forms of transport, such as the bicycle for shorter distances. Athenians could follow the example of many Europeans who are using bicycles more and more. He tells Greek Reporter “We need to change our attitudes or we will be forced to change them.”

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