A man cycles along Vassilis Olgas Avenue on a new bike lane in central Athens. [ANA-MPA]
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the Greek state and society with a rare opportunity to re-evaluate dysfunctional habits. One praiseworthy initiative of the Mitsotakis government/family is a radical rethinking of traffic circulation in central Athens. Displacing private cars will make room for pedestrians, for bicycles, and for faster, more appealing public transportation. To get a sense of that vision, I recommend that you listen to Energy and Environment Minister Kostas Hatzidakis answering a parliamentary question on bicycles by MP Dimitris Keridis on June 29. He promises measures on a usefully large scale, and seems serious about them.
I got on my bicycle on July 2, 2020 to test an early step in this process. I rode down newly closed Vasilisis Olgas, then on the bicycle lane on Amalias Avenue, and finally on the reconfigured Panepistimiou Street as far as Omonia Square. This is a route I know well, part of an early-morning kamikaze run from Plaka to the Athens railroad station. But Athenian officials do not themselves commute by bicycle. Any actual cyclists consulted seem to have been so desperate for some gesture that they did not insist that new bicycle lanes be logical or sustainable.
The Vasilissis Olgas-Amalias bicycle path was created by filling one set of tram tracks with goo and applying an ephemeral yellow coating. It ends abruptly where the tram tracks end at Syntagma, with no sign that a more useful destination lies in the future.
A cynical person might suspect that the goal of this particular bicycle lane was not to serve cyclists but instead to hammer another stake into the corpse of the Syntagma tram line. Transit officials assert and presumably believe the cycle lane is only temporary. The tram tracks have been loaned to the City of Athens for three months, while a new study decides how the tram can safely resume operations. Since the lane will evaporate on October 1, there is no reason to paint any cycle-lane indications or warning notices. *
For cyclists, cars are not the main enemy, except when they are illegally parked or ignore stop signs. The virtue of the new Olgas-Amalias lane is that it keeps pedestrians (and all but the most vicious dogs) at a safe distance. The same cannot be said for the Panepistimiou transformation. The new cycle lane there starts conveniently outside Paul’s bakery, in the middle of a block, so to reach it you must first invade the sidewalk. It ends with a traffic light at Omonia Square, with no obvious escape path for you or the quiche from Paul’s that presumably lured you onto it.
Why pedestrians, already blessed with one of the widest sidewalks in Greece, are now being encouraged to roam the traffic lanes of Panepistimiou is a mystery. Athenians do not understand the difference between green paint and yellow paint. Nothing currently warns them that the yellow strip is full of deadly bicycles hurtling toward them noiselessly from both directions. They certainly do not look in both directions before stepping into the bicycle lane, as they must to reach their new bus stops.
When Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis replaced the south-directed bus lane on Panepistimiou with planter boxes, he missed an obvious opportunity to create a safer cycle lane where that bus lane had been. Then there would be three lanes of traffic separating pedestrians from bicycles, and a much more natural connection to the Amalias cycle lane. With the lane on that side of the street, there would also be direct bicycle access to Omonia Square itself, making the square, as it should be, the nodal point for bike routes to Monastiraki, Gazi, Metaxourgeio, and points beyond. Since the paint on the new lanes seems to wear away after a few weeks in any case, shifting bicycles across the street will be a trivial extra expense.
Bicycle ownership is trending upward in Greece, to the point where a friend trying to buy one last week found none in stock at her cycle shop. Riding safely, though, is a skill that must be learned, and safety means not killing pedestrians as well as not killing yourself. A bicycle lane can make Athenians safer or less safe. Let us hope these new lanes do not end up as Athenian black humor, like the wheelchair ramps or the guide pavements installed for the blind before the 2004 Olympics.
John Brady Kiesling is a former US diplomat who served as chief of the political section of the embassy in Athens and author of “Greek Urban Warriors: Resistance and Terrorism 1967-2014” (2014), among others.
* The Syntagma tram was a zombie from birth, thanks to the Central Archaeological Council’s demand in 2002 that it be diverted from near Hadrian’s Arch onto a much slower and less convenient route. Whether the eroding bed and rusting cover slabs of the Ilissos River under Kallirois Street were a genuine reason or simply a convenient pretext for ending the tram service beyond Neos Kosmos in 2018, no finger has been lifted since then to repair the tram's underpinnings. And the tram extension to Piraeus will be delayed another year, it seems, by the usual suspects.