By Arely Marquez
The first day that I walked in Athens’ streets, I was excited to explore the city, see the differences in culture, interact with local people, and try local food. One of the aspects of Athens and Greece in general that I wanted to explore was public transportation. As a person that uses public transportation everyday in San Diego, I was intrigued by how public transportation works in Athens. Traveling by public transportation in Athens turned out to be a whole new kind of experience.
One of the first things I noticed was that public transportation in Athens is much better than in San Diego. Here there is the metro, which is their main system, not totally like the San Diego trolley. It is the main source of transport, like our trolleys, only they are underground, and they are more like traditional trains. There are three lines, the red, green and blue lines, which also reminded me of San Diego.
In Athens there are also buses, which are both gasoline and electric, as well as a separate bus-like systems called trolleys, which are like buses in San Diego only they run on electric cables above the trolley. Trolleys here look just like buses, and often overlap in routes with buses, but are powered differently. Then, there are what they call trams, which are like city trains that run on tracks, and they seem more like our trolleys. Whew! A lot of terminology, some confusing if you are used to a trolley meaning something else, but they are all interconnected to the Athens neighborhoods, and all pretty easy to use.
The metro stations are really clean. For me, this was a surprising fact. In order to get into the metro you need to buy a metro ticket that can also works for the bus. There are machines inside the metro station where you can buy a public transportation ticket by single trip, two trips, ninety minutes, one day, or 5 days. The most expensive ticket (the 5 day pass) is only 9 euros. All forms of transportation (buses, trolleys, trams and the metro) use the same ticket readers, and you need to scan your ticket to ride each type of transport. For entrance into the metro stations, there is access control where your ticket opens short glass doors to allow you to enter. When you use the tram, trolley or buses, you just tap your ticket a scanning machine that are located in the front, middle, and in the back of the chosen method of transport. Sometimes I saw people walk two at a time when the glass doored entrances to the metro, or for people to enter and exit the buses, trolleys and trams without scanning tickets. I never saw any transportation police to regulate this, even in the metro stations, which was interesting. Maybe they do monitor it and I just didn’t see it.
The most important metro station for all us in Athens is Megaro Mousikis, the blue line metro station nearest our hotel. Recently, I learned that the metro was constructed in 2004 from the money that was invested into Athens for infrastructure improvements to prepare the city to host the Olympics. In fact, there is even a small picture of the olympic stadium built just before 2004 and the five intertwined olympic rings symbol on the green line in the transit map you find in any of the metro trains. I really would love to have a metro in our city, as it is a faster and easier way to get to your more distant destinations.
The first day that we arrive in Athens, we had a walking tour of the city with Spilios, our local guide for the whole trip. At the first street corner, Spilios explained that we should always wait for the red light in the form of a walking person turns green in order to cross the street safely. He warned us though, that drivers don’t always stop for pedestrians automatically, so we still needed to pay close attention and make sure it is safe before crossing any street on a green signal. It surprised me that they don’t give the right-of-way to pedestrians, but then I realized it is the same in Tijuana, where I also travel on public transportation a lot, and I am use to it. Walking between the streets is like walking in downtown Tijuana. It was this realization that helped me feel more comfortable. Though it seemed very different, and the signs are all in a language I don’t understand, it is still familiar, thousands of miles from home.
In Greece, motorcycles and mopeds are everywhere. Everyone seems to use them. Motorcycles park on the sidewalk, in some places there are special parking for them, but is very common to see a motorcycle, or twenty crowded onto the sidewalk. The streets are narrow and people seem to improvise parking anyway they can. People even drive their motorcycles on the sidewalk. Again, they don’t seem to care about pedestrians on the sidewalk either! There have been at least three times I thought a motorcycle might run me over. It was scary. Clearly this is another level of driving, but I soon became used to it, realizing that it is part of their culture. Most of the local people seem to be used to it, as that don’t react or seem nervous, but for me it was a totally shocking at first. At the end of the day, it is a new experience with transportation that I can share.
The majority of the cars are small by American or even Mexican standards. Even the larger vehicles are narrow vans, not wide SUVs. There are tons of smart cars. On our way to the Temple of Poseidon and Athena at Cape Sounion, I counted them, or cars similar in size, and I counted more than 60 cars in a two hours drive. It makes sense that people use small vehicles because the streets are very small and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of parking. Only the main streets are two way streets, and the rest are one way streets identified by signs with red circles with a short horizontal line inside it, which means NO ENTRY. It is also common to see a car parked more on the sidewalk than the street, which again is related to the narrow streets and lack of parking.
While I’ve been here I also noticed that people don’t really respect stop signs, which appear to be more suggestion than rule. How people drive, the independence of the local people, and the streets remember me so much of my messy but beautiful Tijuana. I am glad to have the opportunity to explore how transportation works in the other side of the world, and be able to compare what transportation is like in San Diego, Tijuana, and Greece.