New Roads A Godsend for
Traffic modifications and highway construction promise to alleviate pressure
from a troubled center, but experts warn that without a broader transport
strategy the gains will be shortlived
As city preparations for the 2004 Olympics enter the final stretch, the last pieces of Athens' jumbled transportation jigsaw are gradually falling into place. But whereas the new roads will almost certainly alleviate the capital's chronic congestion, critics warn the benefits won't last long without a broader strategy placing more emphasis on public transport.
On September 21, the publics works ministry carried out a major reshuffle in Ambelokipi (see map) to ease congestion on Kifissias Ave, one of several key highways connecting sports venues during the 2004 Games. The move came two weeks after the Ymittos peripheral road a vital new section of the Attiki Odos ringroad providing faster access to the southern suburbs - was open to traffic. Both projects got off on a cracking start.
"We expect traffic circulation to improve by 30 percent at the Alexandras-Kifissias junction thanks to the changes in Ambelokipi," says Yiannis Theofilis, head of the public works ministry's Olympic roadworks department. "The Ymittos road has already absorbded 20-25 percent of the traffic from Mesogeion Ave, and another 10 percent from the Kareas ringroad. As for Kifissou Ave, when completed it will provide access to the coast in 10 minutes."
Critics argue that the Ambelokipi junction changes will merely disperse traffic over a larger area. But transport expert Yiannis Frantzeskakis dismisses these claims as "plainly ridiculous".
"We knew from the start that this modification would boost traffic flow," says Frantzeskakis, a member of the team the designed the changes.
Olympic organizers estimate that the pre-Games construction drive will leave Athens with a new road network of about 100km in addition to some 90km worth of road upgrades. An Attiki Odos link to Elefsina is to be delivered in November, and a new highway over Kifissos River is expected to connect the Neo Faliro coast with the Athens-Thessaloniki highway by July 2004.
Benefits won't last
There is little doubt the new roads will remove a heavy traffic load from the city center by providing alternate routes to the south, west and east of the city and to Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. It is estimated that the immediate effect in the center will be an increase of peak-hour traffic speed matching less congested mid-90s levels. But there is also widespread concern that at the current rate of car growth in Athens; the benefits won't last long.
"The number of cars in the city is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2010," says Athens Polytechnic transport professor Yiannis Golias. "This city needs about 80km of underground metro, but only has 42km. It needs a tram network of about 100km and will only have 25km by next year.
There ought to be 500 more buses on the roads than there are now Without this sort of public transport infrastructure. I fear that in five years' time we'll be back where we started."
According to Deputy Athens Mayor Chronis Akritidis, a major problem is the lack of a concerted transport strategy. "This city needs more coordinated planning," he says. "Until recently, town hall officials weren't even invited to attend ministry meetings, although this has now improved."
Broader Strategy needed
A broader strategy is also called for, argues Golias.
"There's no denying that Athens needed the roadworks that are now being constructed, but they're not enough to solve the problem by themselves," he
Akritidis adds that state planners also have a tendency to implement measures based on outdated traffic studies and ideas that "look good on the computer".
As an example, he points to the remodeling of Syntagma Square by the Unification of Athens Archaeology Sites (UASA) which will reduce the lanes on Filellinon St from seven to three. To facilitate the changes, taxi stands and bus stops on Filellinon are to be relocated to Othonos St across the road, but Akritidis doesn't see it working.
"I have great doubts about this project," he says. "Does UASA really want us t believe that taxi drivers won't keep one lane of Filellinon permanently blocked to pick up passengers?"
(Posted originally November 2003; reformatted February 2007)
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