Athens lifts head above cloud of car-blown smog Can Athens point the way to smog-free cities?

ALL through this year's long, hot and choking summer, environment ministers and senior officials across the Continent were turning their eyes to this, western Europe's most polluted capital, in the hope of finding relief.

For, after more than a decade of vain attempts at beating the city's notorious smog by trying to control pollution from cars, the Greek government started to ban them from the city centre all together. And other governments have been watching to see whether this could be the solution for their own smog-bound cities.

Athens' smog - known locally as nefos, the "cloud" - kills hundreds every year and is ruining ancient monuments. Six times as many people die in the city on heavily polluted days as when the air is relatively clean. The last of the Parthenon's original frieze, now badly eaten by pollution, has been removed to a museum to join the eroded caryatids which were long ago replaced by replicas.

Gasses from the exhausts of the city's million cars are trapped by the mountains that surround it on three sides. Last year Environment Minister Constantine Laliotis described private cars as a "nightmare" and added: "Day by day the situation is deteriorating."

Repeated attempts to cut the pollution have failed. A scheme to halve traffic by allowing cars to come into the city only on alternate days according to the last figures on their number plates was frustrated by the many Athenians who bought second cars - with appropriate number plates.

Cars are banned all together when pollution reaches emergency levels, and last year employees of public utilities were ordered to turn up for work an hour earlier to try to cut congestion and stop the fumes from building up. But all to little avail.

Finally, this spring, the government's patience snapped. It banned all private cars from the most ancient part of Athens in daytime, except for those belonging to the relatively few people who live there. Deliveries are allowed only at night and first thing in the morning, and free minibuses take tourists and Athenians into the area of over a square mile, which includes the ancient town of Plaka beneath the Acropolis and several - former - major traffic arteries.

Violators face an on the spot fine of about pounds 60 - but Athenians, fed up with the nefos have responded with unprecedented discipline. The scheme has cut some 70,000 car journeys a day and become unexpectedly popular as people walk the streets without fear of being mown down.

Athens is now considering extending it to other parts, while senior British civil servants note that the success of the experiment may provide clues to solving our own growing smog crisis.

But in some ways, of course, the scheme has just shifted pollution around, by directing traffic to other parts of the city. True relief from Athens' smog will have to await the completion of a metro, which is now being built. But this is proceeding slowly because the excavations keep turning up archaeological treasures that have to be investigated and in the meantime the disruption is making congestion in the city even worse.

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