In the European Union, half of all trips by mechanical means cover a distance of less than 5 km, while 1/3 of all trips cover less than 2 km. A part of them could easily be replaced by walking and biking, with great benefits for quality of life and the environment. Especially in Athens, there is a lot of scope for short-distance travel on foot or by bike, due to the city’s high density. The network of public transport stops and stations could be greatly expanded. However, although walking and biking are crucial aspects of Sustainable Mobility, they have been treated unequally compared to other means of transport.
Bicycles have been excluded from the streets of Athens. The attitude towards bicycles in Greece is truly barbaric, compared to the extraordinary changes in mentality and the relevant infrastructure that has been put in place in several other European cities in the past decade. In an effort to create a civil city and to assert the right to use bicycles, an increasing number of mainly young people, , have decided to use bicycles during the last few years. They are faced with extremely hostile conditions, both in terms of the environment as well as in terms of safety and drivers’ aggressive behaviour.
Proper infrastructure, the provision of bicycles for public use, as well as awareness and information campaigns, are important in order to promote cycling. Athens is dramatically deficient in all those respects. In terms of infrastructure, a 4-km long cycling lane has been built in the Zografou University Campus; Nea Eritrea boasts a dense network; north-eastern Athens has a cycle lane between Ekali and Psychiko but with several discontinuities; a cycle lane connects the areas of Gazi and Faliron, while some municipalities have provided lanes in a fragmented way. The Athens Master Plan also envisages a 230 km long Metropolitan Bicycle Network, comprising core routes along Athens’ main roads, that cofeed into blocal municipal networks. The trend in Europe today is to avoid costly projects for the exlusive use of bikes and to dedicate lanes on the road surface instead, using appropriate signs and applying parallel measures to reduce car speed. Given its financial situation, Athens’ local authorities will probably also adopt the same solution, especially for local networks. It is a solution that favours pedestrians, though it requires a change in mentality and in the behaviour of car drivers. It is a cultural challenge that, if won, will benefit biking but not only biking.
Around the world, 600 cities have already installed electronic bicycle systems. They are particularly popular in tourist cities in France, Spain, Italy and China. In Athens, their presence is limited to a few municipalities (Nea Smyrni, Maroussi, Moschato, Drapetsona). However, bicycle systems make the city really welcoming. This is a fact that Athens -whose economy aims at tourism- cannot continue to ignore.
As regards walking, Athens is split in two:
a) On the one hand, attention has been placed on the historical centre where an ambitious programme seeking to “unify archaeological sites” has been implemented. The programme was carried out by an organisation under the same name (Unification of Archaeological Sites SA/ EAXA), which was recently abolished. The programme included spectacular pedestrianisations and redesign of several city squares. The overall goal was to form a moderate road environment that would allow pedestrians to safely access archaeological sites. In this context, significant pedestrianisations took place, for example on Dionysiou Areopagitou Str, Apostolou Pavlou Str, and Ermou Str as well as street renewals, like the one on Kolokotroni Str. The design for Vassilissis Olgas and Panepistimiou – Amalias streets is also ready. This project will connect the Panathenaic Stadium with Gazi and the Archaeological Museum (Patission) with the Acropolis Museum, through uninterrupted pedestrian streets. Another widely discussed option was to put Vassileos Constantinou Str underground in front of the Panathenaic Stadium so as to unite the stadium with the National Gardens on the surface. Similarly, putting Piraeos Str. underground would unify Kerameikos with Gazi. However, both plans were abandoned due to the risk of destroying antiquities in the top geological layers.
At the same time, apart from street pedestrianisations, a number of urban quarters had already been pedestrianised. Plaka’s traffic was managed through a traffic calming programme for the entire neighbourhood, while the so-called Commercial Triangle became a pedestrianised area and only a few streets such as Sophocleous, Evripidou and Kolokotroni Str remained open to vehicular traffic. However, the period of the Olympic Games, during which many areas were reclaimed for pedestrians, was followed by a period of fatigue, introversion and ultimately bankruptcy. As a result a lot of pedestrianisation projects had to stop, while several streets that had already been pedestrianised were taken over by arbitrary parking and traffic.
b) On the other hand, in areas outside the historic centre, the situation is dire. According to the law (published in 2004 in the Government Gazette, Vol. 285 D), the minimum pavement width to be provided in urban plans is 1.5 m. Roads are constructed based on this minimum standard. It is worth mentioning that street widths are very limited, especially in older or less affluent urban quarters, so as not to affect the interests of land owners. At the same time, almost every street is expected to be two-way, with parking spaces on both sides. Traffic studies often propose to eliminate parking spaces at least on one side of the street, or to change into a one-way system, in order to free up space and build wider pavements , but local communities are usually very negative towards such proposals.
In areas around the historic city centre, some pavements may be narrower than 1.5 metres. If we take into account the scrubby trees and a series of other mobile or non-mobile obstacles (parked motorcycles and cars) often found on pavements, we can explain why people are forced to walk on the road, together with vehicles. For example, based on a survey by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) conducted on 43.3 km of pavements in two municipalities of Athens (Halandri and Haidari), pavement width is under 3 m everywhere. In Halandri, 75% of the total pavement length is less than 2 m wide, while in Haidari the number is 95%. In Haidari, 42.7% of the total pavement length is less than 1 m wide.
Table 1: Pavement widths in the municipalities of Halandri and Haidari
It is worth mentioning that there are a few municipalities, such as Nea Smyrni, where pavements are large, but have been turned into parking spaces.
The World Health Organization advises a daily 30-minute brisk walk in order to protect our health, yet an NTUA survey recorded very low walking rates in Athens, especially for ages 20-64, due to the very poor conditions (Table 2). Mainly children and pensioners walk and women generally walk a little more before the age of 65 though after that age they walk much less than men).
Table 2: Average autonomous walking time (in minutes) spent by men per day for various activities (Athens 2006)
Although Greece is going through a period of depression and unrest due to the crisis, Athens is fortunately about to welcome two very large projects, which will significantly change its image and function with regard to walking, biking and public transport,. The first one is the redevelopment of the Faliro Bay and the site of the former Horse Racing Centre, combined with the construction of the Opera, the National Library and possibly a Conference Centre. The second one is the conversion of Panepistimiou str. – the most important arterial road in terms of architecture, town planning and transport – into a public transport, walking and biking corridor. Indeed, if this project is realised, the tram line, which now terminates in front of the National Garden, will continue along Panepistimiou Str and Patission Strall the way into Ano Patissia. This will boost tram passenger traffic and will allow its network to be extended north of the centre and toward other new directions. As for biking, the planned lane along Panepistimiou Street is to be part of the Metropolitan Cycling Network, as envisaged in the new Athens Master Plan. The panned lane will feed into the Faliro – Kifissia cycling lane and will be connected with the pedestrianised Dionysiou Areopagitou Str at Hadrian’s Gate. It will also connect to Vassilissis Olgas, where a cycling lane will also be built once it is pedestrianised. Thus, bikers will be able to reach the Panathenaic Stadium using Panepistimiou Str and from there they will connect to a U-shaped bike lane running through the Technical University Campus and the Metropolitan Park of Goudi up to Katehaki metro station. The fate of the Panepistimiou project is uncertain, however, after the difficulties encourtered for its implementation using structural funds.
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