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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.