How can it be that a 500km road trip requires twelve manned toll-stops in Greece, and none in France?
I’m back at my desk this morning after another lightning road trip with Alexander in the Mini Cooper. Having in previous summers toured Northern Europe and the British Isles, and with Alexander in the midst of his A-level Economics studies, we decided this year to attempt to get to Syntagma Square in Athens and back, which we duly rounded off at midnight last night having spent the day trekking the 1,250 km back home from Monte Carlo. Along the way, we drove through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Monaco. And as our luck would have it, we got to our balcony overlooking Syntagma Square last Sunday afternoon, just as the Euro area Heads of Government were square-bracketing the possibility of agreeing with Greece to eject it from the Euro. For economists and budding economists, it really was an exciting time to be in Greece.
Long road trips aren’t for everyone, of course. But it is an interesting way to ‘feel’ a country, not just physically through the seat of your pants as a results of their various road maintenance programmes, but also in terms of observing the changing geography of Europe as one traverses it, from the flats of Belgium to the mountains of Greece.
But here’s one particular study in contrasts to consider: the 500km drive from Thessaloniki to Athens in Greece on the one hand (which we did last Sunday), and the 500km drive from Lyons to Reims in France on the other (which we did yesterday).
First, the cost of the tolls along the route, which came to EUR 30.7 in Greece and EUR 41.5 in France. Adjust that for their relative GDP per capita, though, and Greece’s road tolls work out around 9% more expensive than their French counterparts. And it wouldn’t surprise me if there was upward pressure on the toll prices in Greece as a result of the next round of belt tightening that looks to be on the government’s agenda as a result of the deal that was finalised as we awoke in Syntagma Square last Monday morning.
Second, road quality. In France, the 500km journey (from its 2nd largest city to its 29th) is completed on comfortable two- or three-lane dual carriageways, whereas in Greece (from its 2nd to 1st largest city, as we drove it) a dual carriageway is still being constructed! Not reconstructed, by the way: constructed, as in for the first time! And for a good portion of the journey, the optimal lane strategy – contrary to usual best-practice – seemed to be to drive in the fast line on account of the gut-wrenching pot-holes in the slow lane, particularly on and around bridges.
Third, road density. In the end, we got bored taking photographs of the empty Greek roads. Perhaps it was just because it was a Sunday, we thought at first. But when we drove out from Athens to Patras (Greece’s third largest city, by the way) two days later, that road was quiet as well. In fact, judging from its current road usage, it’s arguable whether Greece even needs much of a motorway network at present. I’ve seen it written that it costs more to build a kilometre of motorway in Greece than anywhere else in the European Union: take a look at Greece’s geography, however, and there’s rather less reason to be surprised at the relative cost.
Fourth, and finally, try the following short story for relative efficiency/productivity. In yesterday’s journey through France, you take your ticket in Lyon, and then return it 500km later in Reims at an unmanned automated credit card booth. In Greece, in contrast (and on a route of equivalent length, remember), there are twelve toll booths along the route, and all needing to be staffed on account of there being no facility to pay by credit card along the way. And guess which of the two countries – France or Greece – has the worse unemployment problem, by the way (it’s Greece, of course).
There we have it in two simple car journeys: Greece’s motorways are expensive, unproductive, and barely worth it in terms of current usage. The Greek state may only have financed half the cost, but it still seems like an expense too far given the existing conditions. And all of this in Greece, where you’d think they might have learnt all they needed about expensive and unproductive transportation projects 150 years earlier, from the sorry tale of the Corinth Canal.