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.

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Free public transport won’t work – unless we get rid of the drivers

Gissa lift mate. Image: Fraser Elliott/creative commons.

The idea of free public transport has clear appeal. Cities in France; and Germany; are already considering such proposals, to reduce traffic and air pollution. And in the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would introduce free bus travel for under-25s, to complement the passes already available to senior citizens.

But the evidence suggests that offering free public transport causes headaches for local authorities – and may not be an effective way of getting commuters to stop driving cars. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But a 2014 survey showed that most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven. A further survey in 2017 showed that patronage had increased by only 20 per cent over four years.

The April 2018 edition of German trade publication Stadtverkehr claims that the only cost effective way to get car drivers to switch to public transport is to couple reasonably priced transit with severe traffic restraints. For example, in the English city of Sheffield, attractive bus fares and timetables used to keep cars out of the city centre. From the 1970s, until the service was deregulated in 1986, there was simply no need for residents to drive into Sheffield.

Finding the funds

The biggest drawback to free public transport schemes is the lack of funds from fares to cover maintenance and upgrades. In Tallinn, for example, the city’s inadequate tram system will eventually require capital for a complete renewal – or face closure. Hasselt, a Belgian town with a population of 70,000, offered free bus travel for 16 years until 2013, but eventually scrapped it when costs became unsustainable.

Paris, meanwhile, has already banned the most polluting vehicles and offered free public transport for a few days each year when pollution has reached dangerous levels due to atmospheric conditions. But according to an article in the June 2018 edition of Today’s Railways EU, traffic is rarely reduced more than 10 per cent on these days, and the long term shift to other forms of transport is minimal.

In the UK, free bus travel for senior citizens has hastened the demise of many rural and intercity services. Many local authorities have diverted support away from rural, evening and weekend services, to the concessionary fares budget. During interviews with BBC Radio 4, younger people – who rely on buses to get to work or go out on the evenings and weekends – complained that services had been axed to offer senior citizens free travel during daytime on weekdays.

But irrespective of your age, health or prosperity, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on. As bus services are further deregulated in the UK, there will continue to be pointless oversupply on some corridors, while other areas struggle to see more than a few buses per week – if any at all.


Driverless minibuses

The development of autonomous electric minibuses could be a game changer, especially if a manufacturer is prepared to lease them on favourable terms. Local authorities could pilot a scheme whereby the bus is “hailed” by smart phone 15 to 30 minutes before departure. Indeed, tests for autonomous on-demand services are already underway in cities across the US, UK; and Europe;.

Once the expensive and restrictive labour element is removed from the operating costs, there is no reason why such services could not be offered free of charge to all users. In the urban core – within a 10km radius of a city centre – these services could run 24/7. Further afield, in the suburbs, a daily service from 6am until midnight would probably be sufficient to compete with the private car.

Autonomous minibuses could automatically connect with city buses and trains, which would continue to be staffed and paid for by fares. The minibuses would provide a “last mile” service, taking people within easy walking distance of their destination. In urban areas, all residential and business premises would be within 200m of a minibus stop, extending to 500m in suburban areas and 1km in rural areas.

At off peak times, the minibuses could replace some conventional bus services to avoid the inefficiencies created when a 70 passenger bus is used to transport only ten people on an evening or Sunday service.

To prevent abuse of the minibuses, passengers would scan their phones on boarding to confirm the booking. If they didn’t, a penalty could be collected automatically from their phone. CCTV could identify any disruptive passengers and refuse further bookings. Meanwhile, taxis would continue to prosper from those people willing to pay for a personal door-to-door service.

Public transit systems, as we know them today, would struggle to deliver a sustainable free service. But there’s a real possibility that the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow could do just that.

John Disney, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.