Athens has the highest per capita car ownership in the European Union

The summer in central Athens is brutal; the air is hot and lifeless and even at night the temperature barely drops.

But, in one important respect, summer does bring respite.

As this is the time of year when so many Athenians flee for the islands and the coast, there is a marked decrease in traffic across the city.

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Streets of Athens face gridlock as congestion bites

Cars flow down normally congested streets, and searching for a parking place in the city centre is no longer such an ordeal.

For most of the year, however, driving round Athens is a real challenge, characterised by frayed tempers, little courtesy and frequent delays.

I must admit, I have it relatively easy. I live in the city centre, and can easily walk to the nearby Al Jazeera office.

But according to officials, there are some two million cars being driven around Athens, giving the city the highest per capita car ownership in the European Union.

Changing mentalities

Leaving aside its ancient core, Athens is largely an ugly, 20th-century city that grew in a rapid and chaotic way.

In this regard, it perhaps has more in common with many large cities in the developing world than with its European counterparts.

In the latter years of the 20th century, living standards in Greece rose dramatically, car ownership soared, and is still increasing today.

But as Athens grew, little thought went into public transport, and only now, belatedly, are the city authorities putting serious thought into the city's chronic transport problems.

Chronis Akritidis, the deputy mayor of the city, admits, with a rueful smile, that there is much work to be done if a majority of Athenians are to be convinced to leave their cars at home.

In a recent survey, 6 out of 10 Athenians said they did not like to use public transport.

He recalls how drivers co-operated, perhaps surprisingly, with traffic control schemes during the 2004 Olympic Games.

"During the games the mentality changed," he says, but admits that the change only lasted for the duration of the Games.

Odds and evens

In fact, Athens has had a novel traffic-control system in place ever since 1983 - that was when the government decided that cars with odd and even number plates would be allowed into the city on alternate days.

Chronis Akritidis, the deputy mayor, says there is much work to be done to improve congestion
In theory, the measure is meant to reduce by half the numbers of cars on the road on any given day.

In practice, many Athenian families now own two cars, and as the licensing authorities often allow car owners to choose odd or even number plates, the system is much less effective than it could be.

Athanasia is a typical two-car Athenian.

She drives all over the city for her legal work, using a car with an even number plate on one day, and a car with an odd number plate the next day.

She says she would like to use public transport, but that "it doesn't really work for me, because I would waste too much time waiting for buses and trains".

Going underground

To see how public transport in Athens is improving, you need to go underground.

The Athens metro system was a long time coming - it did not open until 2000 - but it is now expanding rapidly.

Several new stations are due to open in the coming months, connecting suburbs to the centre, and, at last, giving commuters options.

Moreover, the metro is clean, efficient and well-organised; everything the dirty, chaotic city above is not. 

The number of people using the metro is rising, but so too is the number of new cars in the capital.

Pedestrian rights

Being a pedestrian in this city is a trying experience. There is the heat, noise and pollution.

Pavements are notoriously narrow, and frequently blocked by illegally-parked cars and motorbikes.

Nikkos Stappas belongs to a pedestrian rights organisation, Pezi; a new voice, struggling to make itself heard over the competition of the powerful car lobby.

He says the authorities are "listening to us but ... they do not think pedestrian rights are their first priority".

Akritidis denies this, and outlines plans to turn large parts of the city centre into pedestrian-only zones.

He even has schemes to improve life for Athens' small band of courageous cyclists, with a commitment to open the city's first dedicated bicycle routes.

"We can't change things 100 per cent in a short time," he admits, "but we are trying for 80 or 90 per cent in the next few years."

Source: Al Jazeera