Traffic-Snarled and Smoggy, Athens Cleans Up Greece's Capital Establishes a Traffic-Free Zone, Steps Up Construction of a Subway, and Asks Siesta-Takers to Break the Habit

Article excerpt

The city that invented democracy has become in our century the symbol of urban anarchy. Athens today is a snarling, smog-filled mess, the antithesis of the ordered paradise built by Pericles. So when Athens's young mayor, Dimitris Avramopoulos, boasts that "in one year, Athens could become one of the most functional and humane cities in Europe," there's good reason to be skeptical.

But this time Athens says it's serious about cleaning up its act, and it has an impressive, if short, record to prove it. The long-delayed metro is finally under construction and work is scheduled to begin on an above-ground trolley network in six months. Cleaner fuels and better engines are starting to have an effect on air quality. And this summer, a large section of the city's commercial center is closed to traffic.

A pedestrian oasis

The city is even challenging the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, asking workers to stop heading home in the afternoon for a siesta, a habit that effectively adds two more rush hours.

Begun as a three-month experiment, the traffic-free zone downtown has already been declared a success, and the program is now being expanded to two other neighborhoods. The first could be closed to traffic this month.

The pedestrian oasis forms a triangle between three of the city's main squares abutting the old Plaka district at the foot of the Acropolis. Before they were closed, these shopping streets were some of the most congested in Athens. Cars moved at an average of three miles per hour, the pace of a leisurely stroll. Now trees in boxes have replaced bumper-to-bumper traffic and bird songs have replaced the usual background of grinding gears and whining motor scooters.

Avramopoulos says, "I couldn't understand why no one has done it before. They said it was fear of the political cost. But, believe me, the day after I announced the plan, there was no political cost. The reaction from the people was and is very enthusiastic." Even taxi drivers and restaurant owners, who had threatened a revolt, came around since business actually improved along the suddenly pleasant streets.

Working together

But if the people of Athens had been ready for this project for years, the politicians hadn't. It required a break with what Avramopoulos calls "the fanatic polarization of Greek politics." Avramopoulos is in the conservative New Democracy Party. His ally, Environment Minister Costas Laliotis, is a member of the Socialist government. It's the first time the two parties have worked together.

Christine Tomazinaki, head of a government city cleanup program called SOS Athens, and an adviser to the environment minister, agrees: "This is something we didn't have in the past, a politician and a minister who were willing to do this. The lack of decision was the main problem. Now we have that."

But she admits that Athens is still a long way from its goal of becoming a "truly clean city with fresh air. …