Athens is trying to cut fumes from its roads and smoke from its bars

Well, at least you can still smoke outside in Athens. Image: Getty.

Athens is getting serious about air quality – in theory. The municipality has pledged to ban all diesel vehicles from its city centre by 2025.

Around six per cent of all deaths in Greece are linked to air pollution, towards which diesel engines are acknowledged as a leading contributor. Plus, with nearly 30 per cent of the population living in the capital, the plan seems eminently sensible.

But the moment something appears to make sense in Athens is exactly the time to pay attention. Because what was omitted from the great fanfare around the announcement of this commitment, made alongside the mayors of Mexico City, Paris and Madrid, was that it is actually nothing new for this particular city.

Along with Thessaloniki, Athens had a diesel ban in place from 2001: and it seemed to work well. Greece was ahead of the game on urban air quality, something that the UK could’ve stood to learn from before winding up in court repeatedly for pollution breaches.

Then, in 2011, the ban was scrapped. Diesel vehicle sales rose once again. And this, coupled with households burning pretty much anything combustible for winter heating in the light of sky-high energy taxes, has unsurprisingly led to a return to dirtier air.

If loosening these restrictions was about helping citizens struggling financially, then putting them back in place is either a sign of bold economic confidence for the coming years – or an admission that overturning policies that deal directly with public mortality is perhaps a touch on the reckless side.

Of course, clean air – or a lack of it – is far from an outdoors-only issue in Greek cities. There has had a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces since 2009 – but this is easily the nation’s most flagrantly flaunted legislative measure.

There are no checks on venues, or anything remotely approaching a widespread will to self-police. Smoke hangs in the air of most bars and cafes, and ashtrays are brought to tables pretty much as standard. This is a country where a health minister felt at liberty to light up at a press conference.

Haze over Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Nonetheless, the crackdown is, apparently, set to begin. Notice has been given that the law will be dormant no more, with €50-500 euro fines handed out to individuals caught cig-handed in public, and up to 10,000 plus the possibility of closure for venues playing loose with the ban.

Idle threats? Possibly. There are a great deal of rules and regulations in Greece: the difficulty is their enforcement. It is curious that the birthplace of the rule of law is, these days, a nation where traffic lights are routinely cursed at as jobsworth authority figures.

Yet, there are signs that obedience is achievable. Indeed, aside from the air quality and health connections, Athens’ previous attempt to restrict diesel vehicles do have an echo with the apparently renewed commitment to tackling indoor smoking. It seems to illustrate that regulation can be enforced, if the will is there.

And it might well be. For one thing, there are millions of euros of philanthropic money being pumped into Smoke Free Greece, a campaign aimed at the next generation of Greeks and backed by health-focused research.

One barrier to change is that the act of smoking does enjoy something of a unique niche in the realm of dirty air; a sense of the ‘last bastion of individual liberty’. This is a trait not so strong around the right to pump whatever you want from the exhaust of your vehicle.

Yet, the latest statistics have suggested that Greeks are giving up smoking on a scale never seen before, while a recent poll suggested that a huge majority of the public believe that not complying with anti-smoking laws is unacceptable, and even a national disgrace.

The latter finding is, however, something of a contrast to the views you’re likely to hear socially, while online rows regularly erupt among Athenians on this issue. These generally end up departing from the theme of smoking per se, towards stratification along the lines of whether or not resistance to rules is a unique cultural trait to have, and indeed, hold.

This is certainly not the only point of cultural note to consider in the clean air debate. In fact, the Greeks could well be considered the behavioural economist’s worst nightmare.

There’s a sense that, while keeping a pristine home is prized, what’s outside your four walls doesn’t matter quite as much. Then, there’s the rampant strain of anti-authority conspiracy theorising, which includes a significant section of the population subscribing to the ‘chemtrails’ hypothesis. There’s air pollution – then there’s the theory that the powers-that-be are subduing citizens with mild-altering chemicals from the tailpipes of passing planes.

Ultimately, nothing is ever as simple as the acceptance of rules governing aspects of our daily business versus a total free-for-all: urban life is by its very nature a matter of give and take. Even, to some extent, in Athens.

Yet the smoking issue provides a stark illustration of the tensions in Europe today. Many cities discuss smart connectivity on a grand scale, and the public data flows and consent issues that go with that.  Meanwhile, at the southerly end of the continent, they seem unable to decide whether enforcing a near-decade old piece of public health regulation represents a grand capitulation to an alien, ‘North European’ mentality.

It’s possible to speculate that loosely-enforced legislation has something of a unifying role in Greece. Where nationalists and anarchists seem to work a rotating protest schedule, equal commitment to the idea of not batting an eyelid to day-to-day statute could well be seen as a political common ground, in a country where polarisation is the norm. Who knows what terrors could await if rules start being implemented, the safety valve blocked up.

Regardless, the practical advantages of cleaning Athens’ air, inside and out, are pretty clear. It could do a lot to change outsiders’ perception of Athens as one of Europe’s grubbier capitals.

So, will mystery smokers soon be propping up city bars, making clandestine notes of offences on toilet visits? Will lines of otherwise under-employed Hellenic Police be forming cordons across roads into the centre of Athens, checking engines in the run up to 2025? All bets are off.

Whatever happens, a scene is set well worth lighting up a cigar and watching with avid attention. Though you might, just might, have to do so outside.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook