Greek cities are obstacle courses for those on foot

Athens is hard for anybody to navigate on foot. Sidewalks are choked with billboards, metal poles, cement pillars, car ramps, potholes, trash, planter boxes, packing cases, piles of dirt, motorbikes and cars. Pedestrians squeeze between car bumpers to cross the street or leap into the road every few minutes because the sidewalk is impassable. It is downright unsafe. Mishaps on sidewalks and roads – 43 percent of all recorded falls – have taken on epidemic proportions. The recent refurbishment of Athens’s sidewalks with new paving, special lanes for the blind and ramps for people of limited mobility was a positive step. But it has been hampered by a piecemeal approach and the lack of overall planning. Drain covers and streetlamps are planted right in the middle of the lanes for the blind, and problems caused by narrow, poorly constructed sidewalks cannot be solved by new paving. The same problems remain – uneven surfaces, steep slopes, poorly made covers for drains and water meters, badly built ramps and curbs, narrow traffic islands, inadequate lighting, confusing traffic signs, a profusion of private advertisements and objects and, of course, parked vehicles. A survey of 320 sidewalks in Athens and Piraeus conducted by the Pharmacology Laboratory of Athens University’s Medical School reveals what pedestrians face every day. The researchers found that 64 percent of sidewalks are completely taken over by parked cars, 28 percent by stores’ goods and advertising signs, and 7 percent by the tables and chairs of cafes and restaurants. There are potholes, broken paving stones and numerous paving stones gone missing on 52 percent of sidewalks. Other obstacles were found strewn about on 46 percent; there were piles of trash and discarded objects on 38 percent, broken metal utility covers on 25 percent and tree roots had broken up the edge of the paving stones on 25 percent. 600 casualties «In one year at Erythros Stavros Hospital we recorded 600 admissions due to falls on sidewalks,» says Assistant Professor Ioannis Papadopoulos from the research team. «The injuries stemmed directly from the lack of foresight in planning and constructing sidewalks.» He cited examples of poor planning and waste in the recent revamp, where paving stones were torn up unnecessarily and new sidewalks are at the mercy of any contractor who comes along and tears them up. «It’s happening all over again with natural gas installation,» he said. Temporary obstacles created by roadwork are the most dangerous. The law stipulates that there must be proper notices of warning; the area must be surrounded by a brightly colored partition, lit at night and allow a 1.20-meter space for pedestrians to pass – regulations that are often flouted when natural gas lines are installed. Other regulations govern the height, width and gradient of sidewalks. They should be no more than 7-10 centimeters high, no less than 2.05 meters wide, allow a free passageway of no less than 1.5 meters, have a lengthwise incline no greater than 12 percent and a transverse incline no greater than 4 percent. Non-slip materials are to be used, and grids or drains must not break the surface nor be placed in the main thoroughfare. But the law is rarely complied with. The same team ran another survey in 16 Greek towns (Amfilohia, Argostoli, Sami, Aidipsos, Aitoliko, Loutraki, Mesolongi, Nafpaktos, Napoli, Philippiada, Florina, Kozani, Grevena, Farsala, Vonitsa and Kastoria). They found ramps on sidewalks were satisfactory in just five of the 17 towns, and that the incline was satisfactory in only three of them. Only four towns had sidewalks wider than 80 centimeters and only three had sidewalks free of obstacles. No city was deemed to provide adequate accessibility for people of limited mobility. «Apart from the legislation, which has not yet been implemented, and the construction of new sidewalks, it is obvious that the government and local authorities have not yet changed their attitude toward pedestrians and vulnerable sectors of society. Implementation of EU legislation is still far in the future,» said Papadopoulos. Mari Papatheodorou, an architect-engineer and a member of the pedestrians’ rights group Pezi, puts much of the blame for the dire state of sidewalks on engineers, «especially those who turn a blind eye when a contractor hands over a poorly made new sidewalk.»

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