Is Greece becoming Green ?

Article published on April 1, 2008
community published
Article published on April 1, 2008
As a foreigner arriving in Athens and before you can distinguish the Parthenon, or even the edge of Acropolis’s rock, you will first notice that a new god has joined the Greek Pantheon: the Car. Queen of the melted tarmac in Athens’ hot busy streets, princess of the Nikis avenue by the sea in Thessaloniki, mother of all traffic jams on the principal entries in every Greek town, the car is god.

You can even find some on the beaches which are sometimes used as car parks. We have known this problem for several years now. The view you can have from the hills surrounding Athens is spoilt by a grey, yellow and violet cloud as a result of car pollution. But the Greek authorities have now decided to be hip and trendy like other European countries informing us that they are seriously thinking about how to remove the car from the city centers.

In the newspaper Ta Nea dated 18th March (see article), the solutions they are putting under scrutiny are the following. Firstly to put tolls on all the main entry roads into Athens and all other big cities. Secondly to tax motorists depending on their car size and engine type. And finally to encourage people to stop using old heavy polluting cars (more than 20 years old) which at the moment represents one million cars out of the 5,5 million cars in use today in Greece. Furthermore they are also suggesting a reduced tax when you buy a greener car such as a hybrid car. The road infrastructure and public transport networks should be improved to be more adapted to commuters’ needs. To park a car in the city center should be more expensive to encourage city center workers to use public transport to commute.

For those you have already walked through the streets of Athens or elsewhere in Greece, the plans announced to investigate the use of the bicycle sound good but surprising. The idea itself is nothing out of the ordinary : the possibility of taking bicyles onto the public transport system, developing a rent-a-bike network, changing the current circulation, and particularly ensuring the cyclists’ safety with an adapted traffic light system.

Everybody should be excited about these new ideas presented by a Commission from the Ministery of Environment, Public road works and transport. This all sounds very nice but there are some grumpy, disatisfied people out there. One of them wrote an article (see article) in the newspaper Ta Nea in which he expresses his hopes and fears: he hopes that the authorities won’t only decide to create new tolls and taxes (to create a lucrative money making scheme for the government), but will also expand both the underground networks and car parks not forgetting the everyday working class commuter. If not these tolls would be used only by the rich motorists in the city center hence creating an elitist system.

The analysis is more critical in the newspaper Eleftherotypia (see article). Considering firstly that the ideas were put forward to answer the European commission's “green book” about the public transport in Europe, adopted in september 2007, the journalist Charas Tzanavaras regrets that the work was done without the Ministery of Transport, nor the Ministery of Economy, whose role will be essential to create the new infrastructure required by these new innovative ideas. Ironically the journalist questions the Ministery of Environment’s involvment in these so called green policies: it will not even attend a congress organised soon to inform the school pupils in Athens about this subject, already well prepared by numerous other Greek institutions. Regarding the rent-a-bike development, the article highlights the real importance of this type of green transport. The cycle lanes are planned only for the seafront and parks, i.e. there are practically no repercutions for the city center circulation.

In my opinion, I am fascinated and excited by the idea of cycling safely in the streets of Athens. But after thinking about it, and without wanting to undermine the government’s positive intentions, I would still like to express some reservations regarding the cyclits’ safety. It’s just not enough to have a suitable infrastructure but also must be compulsory to educate the car drivers of how to react and deal with cyclists on the roads. However this education process will not be done overnight. It's going to be time consuming. Considering that Greece is not really a reference concerning pedestrians’ safety, therefore it will also be difficult to educate motorists on cyclists’ safety. Then there are also some geographical problems to discuss. We can’t say that Greece is a vast flat plain like the tulip fields in Holland. For example, just to go from the Syntagma square to the French Institute you have to be a contender for best climber in the Tour de France. In many Greek towns and cities there are hills everywhere, add to that 35°C in the shade it then becomes pratically impossible for an ordinary human being.

Recently I heard on Greek radio about some courageous pioneers who are trying to cycle through some small towns like Larissa, hoping to capture in their wake some other cycling adventurers. I really hope they will be successful. I am looking forward to the plans announced for Athens in the future : they should be put into place from 2009… For the moment I am dreaming about a city stroll, where we could hear the crickets and smell the orange trees in full bloom. It’s utopia, isn’t it ?