Athens' smog solution raises cloud of protests

The government of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou has been considering an anti-smog program for five years. But, according to analysts, it has failed to act because political risks have posed too much of a threat. But a recurring bout with invisible, but noxious, carbon monoxide during recent months, which has left hundreds of people hospitalized, has finally forced the government's hand.

Beginning this week, taxis and private cars will be restricted in the center of Athens. The restrictions for traveling in the area will be determined by the number on their license plate and the alternating odd-even days of the week. And, beginning in February, all private cars will be eliminated from the one-square-mile ``historical center'' of the capital.

The government's apprehension over the political costs of the measures was not unfounded. Taxi drivers, in particular, have raised a fuss, staging numerous strikes and demonstrations since the program was announced in December. Government officials say the drivers have been forced to bear the economic brunt of the anti-smog campaign because a good share of their business lies in the restricted zone around the center.

The environment ministry, however, says cars account for 75 percent of the city's air pollution. The capital's 14,000 taxis, most of which foul the air with emissions from low-grade diesel fuel, are said to contribute 40 percent.

Another feature of the anti-smog drive is the plan to convert car engines to lead-free gasoline and to phase out diesel use, to modernize the aging, smoke-billowing engines of the public buses, and to put filters on the smokestacks that punctuate the Athens skyline.

Some industries, such as tanneries, are being told to relocate to less populated areas. These measures, too, are hardly popular, as they hit the pocketbook of both the man in the street and industry.

Taxi drivers, whose fares are among the lowest of western European capitals, insist that the government should give them low-interest loans to assist the engine conversion.

Perhaps the most striking proposal is the plan to cut traffic to and from the center of Athens by forcing retailers to adopt continuous shop hours, thereby abolishing the traditional four-hour afternoon siesta that many Athenians treat themselves to. Shop owners, in response to the proposal, closed their doors to business last Monday, complaining that their labor costs are going to jump as a result of the additional shopping hours.

More cynical observers here say the increase in sales revenues will offset the higher wage bill and that what shop owners are griping about is the loss of their afternoon nap. The opposition New Democracy Party has issued its complaints, as well. It has said that the ruling Pasok Party of Mr. Papandreou will realize the political costs of the program and will only implement the measures halfway.

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