After years of news reports about the economic troubles in Greece, it is all too easy to ignore or forget the scale of the problems there.
The figures on vehicle ownership and new car registrations in Greece offer an interesting perspective on just how much impact the economic crisis is having on daily lives, and on how people get around.
In 1990, Greece had the lowest number of passenger cars per head in the EU of the time (170 cars per 1000). In contrast, the UK had more than 2 times that figure. In the 1980s, Greece had very high taxes on cars – cars were expensive items for fairly wealthy families and run into the ground to get the value from them. Most people relied on motorbikes, scooters, taxis and the bus. Where there were affordable cars, they may well have been made out of bits of old scrap. With a particularly old parc, vehicle emissions were exacerbated and vehicle safety was poor.
Greece then experienced a remarkable degree of motorisation, as EU rules opened up the car market and EU money improved the roads. From 1990 to 2009, Greece had the largest percentage increase in per capita car ownership in the EU outside the Eastern Bloc countries.
New vehicle registrations went up, and households that used to have one motorbike began to have one or more cars as well. But as the economic crisis took hold, the car has experienced a precipitous decline. New vehicle registrations have collapsed (down by about 40% in each of the last two years). In 2011, the UK had 31.3 new vehicle registrations per 1000 people, Greece had 8.6. In addition to car buying, car trips, as with all other expenditure, have been drastically reduced.
However, with some of the highest fuel prices in Europe (5th highest petrol, 7th highest diesel), serious car tax rises to help fix the deficit, and increasingly unaffordable public transport costs, many cannot afford to go back to motorcycles either – step forward the bicycle. The Greek bike industry appears to be booming, as people turn to the bicycle to get around. While other businesses close, bicycle shops are doing well.
These aren’t MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) or people making a lifestyle choice. Cycling has had a very poor image in Greece. The former Prime Minister was widely mocked for his interest in cycling (apparently not macho enough), and, given the bad infrastructure, heat and hills, many – perhaps understandably – can’t imagine cycling at all. But mobility is vitally important, and there seems to be a turn to the bicycle as many Greeks are priced out of most other ways of travelling.
The Mayor of Athens, George Kaminis, recently announced a pilot scheme to rent public bicycles in the historic centre of the city . While the mayor is looking at cycle hire schemes, perhaps he should also be looking at car sharing and car clubs for those still struggling to pay for their cars. As recent RAC Foundation work has shown, these schemes bring traffic emission reductions and give people and businesses access to an automobile when they need it, on a pay-as-you-go basis.