Interview of Deputy Minister of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks, Spyros Vougias.
In times of crisis is there a place for the “luxury” of green transport?
The “green” transport is more economical in terms of energy consumption, cleaner and environmentally friendly and more efficient in transportation because we can have much more movements with the same construction costs. Rail transport, for example, around and within cities (suburban, underground, tram, etc.) requires significant new investments, creates thousands of jobs during the construction time and the operation as well, and is significantly effective as it enables the transfer of millions of passengers or tonnes of merchandise. We have invested enough in roads. It’s train time and time for alternative means of massive and personal transportation in the cities.
What kind of initiatives have you taken in this direction during your term as Deputy Minister?
I came in the Ministry of Transport Infrastructure and Networks as Deputy Minister about 6 months ago. It took a little time updating and adjusting to join in the pace and the agenda of major institutional reforms (liberalization of road freight consolidation, restructuring and reorgani-zation of the railways, new law on public transport in Athens) promoted within these months of political courage and deter-mination. In between of intense parliamentary activity I was strongly involved in road safety, as Chairman of the newly established National Council for focusing on protecting the most vulnerable road users (cyclists, pedestrians, disabled). Moreover, I have decided to allow, the prohibited up to now entry of bicycles on metro and have “revived” the two completely ecological projects in Thessaloniki, which I have personally identified with and had been forgotten in recent years: modern tram in the city centre and urban water transportation.
What would you like to be your “Fingerprint” left in this Ministry? What is your vision?
I feel somehow strange, as Ι have gone back in time. I “served” in the same position of Deputy Minister of Transport (even in the same office) nine years ago, in October 2001. A few months later, I resigned to seek election as Mayor of Thessaloniki, so I did not manage to leave anything important. I was still inexperienced in conditions and codes of central politics and in any case, it is required a critical political time to design and implement in practice one discrete project .Now I feel much more experienced and powerful because of what I have experienced in the meantime and of my time in the emotionally intensive term in the Ministry of Citizen Protection. Being there for ten months, I believe, I have left a trace of me in areas that I worked with dedication such as the way of training new police officers and a different way in perception and management of the immigration issue. This time in the Ministry of Transport, I believe, there will be left something of the vision which I studied, I taught my students and I have being working and politically fighting over 30 years, which is alternative means of transportation in human cities.
Beginning 1st of March bicycles are being allowed in the Underground. You have started with 2 bikes in the last wagon. Will you continue towards this direction? What other incentives will you give to cyclists?
The decision of having bicycles in the Underground should have been taken long ago. Cyclists asked insistently, but in vein, to get the permission by the administration of Underground to entry their bicycles on trains. The decision taken was the result of discussions at the National Road Safety Council with representatives of the movements of cyclists and the municipal party of G. Amyras of the Municipality of Athens. They have proposed the restriction of two bicycles per train, which is an international standard in power for security reasons. We have started a three months trial period beginning March 2, based on mutual respect and self-regulation of the cyclists themselves. There are two days per week, every Wednesday afternoon and every Sunday from 12 at noon to the end of the shift, and I am personally very optimistic that all this will go very well and soon during the summer its application will be extended to more days and hours.
Cyclists are not considered “outsiders” in the underground any more; however, this is not the same in their own city. What about bicycle lanes?
The cyclists were not excluded from the other public transportation means as they could use the tram, the electric and the suburban. Now, because of John Boutaris, Mayor of Thessaloniki and of George Kaminis, Mayor of Athens I expect to see thousands of municipal bicycles available at Underground stations and other central locations for the people to get and leave them easily close to their destinations as it is happening in other European cities. To have these bikes safely move there must be the adequate infrastructure. As a professor of transport, I was and always remain fully committed to build safe bicycle lanes’ networks in major cities. We shall have to formulate safe conditions for cyclists, if we want to support this ecological means of transport and encourage urban cycling. Cyclists should not be limited to the use of pedestrian streets and of existed scarce bicycle lanes but we must engage width of the road currently occupied by illegal parking. I can finally announce that we are in the process of consultation and discussions with both the administration of the OASA and the cyclists in order to allow the movement of the bicycles in the exclusive lanes for buses.
The cycling tourism is expected to surpass 20 billion euros over the next 20 years in the EU. Do you believe that our country has the appropriate conditions to “be touched”?
Indeed, Greece always follows and adapts with delay the evolution of the rest of Europe. However, a new culture “bikes in our life” is rapidly formed in our country that starts from the young people, is supported by the difficult environmental and social conditions, and a different way of viewing the world, a different attitude. So, the continuously growing cycling tourism might find us better prepared. This might constitute a great opportunity for further development of thematic tourism in our country given the excellent weather conditions.
Which is your opinion regarding the proposal of GAIAOSE S.A to convert the disused railway lines to bicycle lanes?
This is a very interesting and useful option of using abandoned railway lines that are situated near residential areas and it was very common in previous alignments. They can also connect coastal villages with picturesque bicycle routes or be converted to walkways if the lines pass through a village. In any case, GAIAOSE S.A can creatively reclaim its property in cooperation with municipalities, local authorities, cultural associations and/or NGOs. In this way old station buildings or abandoned railway lines will get a contemporary profile.
Let’s go now in your home city, Thessaloniki. The urban water transport-ation (sea busses) and tram are the two big personal bets to have the traffic problem solved. The second largest city of Greece has had enough of promises. What stage are the procedures for their implementation at?
I always used to say that the memory of a city which” remembers” indicates the appropriate transportation means they need and come back with a modern form, of course. Both the tram and the water bus were two proposals that I had made since the 80s. Today, I think, that the conditions for their implementation have been formed both in terms of transportation needs and in terms of economic conditions. The Transportation Infrastructure Strategic Plan presented by the Minister Dimitris Reppas for Thessaloniki includes the exploring of the feasibility of constructing tram that serves the city centre and in conjunction with the underground, traffic will be adequately dealt with and the city will be upgraded environmentally and aesthetically along its route. I believe that this project will soon go ahead and join in funding programs. Regarding the sea bus, being in contact with the 3 Mayors of catchment areas, I am more optimistic than ever because the conditions have now matured. In three months, we shall launch a public call for expressions of interest by private investors under the SASTH coordination. This is a key route linking either Perea or New Epivates with both Kalamaria and the city center and it will require mild, low-cost infrastructure for the building of three stops. I believe that in the spring of 2012, the 100 years birthday since the liberation of the city, Thessaloniki will be able to revive the Thermaikos Gulf and to restore its traditional relationship with the sea.
In your everyday life, have you adopted methods of protecting the environment?
This is not my personal goal, but I do the basics, as I try to reduce “my energy footprint”. At home, we collect and recycle paper and plastics. I barely use my car because I like to walk in the city, to wander around the shops, the people and the sea. I smoke a little and only outdoors. I know it’s not enough but I think my environmental contribution is the opportunity to contribute to the ecological decision making. And this is much more important and useful for the protection of the environment.