Pedestrian ordeals in downtown Athens

I was determined. No matter how many obstacles I had to hurdle, how many parked cars or crumbling curbs made me regret the moment I had decided to cross Athens on foot, I would not lose my temper. I wouldn’t be put off by sneaky potholes, corners protruding from kiosks and stores, or parked cars blocking ramps. «You’re feeling adventurous,» said my friend Christina, who, as the mother of a nine-month-old infant, wouldn’t dream of trying to get across Athens with a pram. Throughout my walk downtown, I couldn’t get her comment out of my mind. My baptism of fire occurred at the traffic lights on Syntagma Square at the top of Ermou Street, which seem set for sprinters. The light stays green for 10 seconds and red for more than a minute. I barely managed to get halfway across in the time allowed. Taking matters into my own hands, I contacted the Ministry for the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE), which is responsible for traffic lights. After keeping me on hold for 10 minutes, they connected me with the traffic department, who put me on to the traffic light engineer and then the department head, to whom I complained about the administration’s attitude toward pedestrians. «We will take note of your comment about the traffic light,» he reassured me, and I hope he meant it. Going down Panepistimiou Street from Syntagma toward Omonia Square, I take part in a dangerous game: pedestrian crossings. The light is usually green for me, and flashing amber for vehicles turning into other streets. When I step off the sidewalk onto Harilaou Trikoupi Street, brakes squeal, horns blare and insults fly. «Get a move on or we’ll miss the light,» is the politest of the remarks I hear. Yet, according to Article 39 of the highway code, «drivers turning into a street which has a pedestrian crossing at the start must give way to pedestrians who are already using or stepping onto the crossing and if necessary stop their vehicle.» On Ippocratous Street in Exarchia, cars are parked all along the sidewalk and the road is crammed with motorbikes of all sizes, especially in rush hour. «Move aside,» I hear a biker in a hurry shout behind me. The sidewalk does at least have the special indented paving stones installed to help people with impaired vision to navigate. But they are not much use when the ramps are blocked by people who’ve parked their cars on them with the excuse, as I heard from one young driver I caught in the act, that they «couldn’t find anywhere else to park.» In the side streets, parked cars completely fill the spaces between buildings. On Eressou Street, an elderly woman who is unsteady on her feet is stuck outside her front door. «Help me, please,» she implored. «The next we know they’ll be bringing their cars into our living rooms.» I take her by the hand and lead her over the broken pavement, full of holes and dislodged pieces. Most of it, of course, is covered with parked cars. «The situation in downtown Athens is difficult because every driver only looks out for himself. There’s an attitude of ‘The other guy has parked illegally, so I will too.’ Everything starts with road education, which is lacking in general,» said Traffic Police Chief Brigadier Constantinos Kouma-natanos. «The thing is to obey the rules of the road, not out of fear of a fine, but because the basic rules of road conduct dictate it. Otherwise, we have all failed.» That same day I telephoned the Municipal Police to describe what I had seen on Eressou Street. «We don’t send officers to Exarchia because we’ve had two incidents in which our colleagues were in danger,» explained the officer on duty, assuring me that the rest of Athens was policed more strictly. «Especially with fines imposed for parking on ramps for the disabled, we don’t accept appeals.» It is not only parked cars that clog up the sidewalks in Athens, but tables and chairs planted in front of cafes and restaurants. «It is the duty of municipal authorities to check whether businesses comply with the permits they have been issued. Of course, there have to be some tables outside, the question is how many. Lots of businesses infringe upon the conditions of their permit and simply count fines as a running cost,» said Eleni Portaliou, associate professor of architectural planning at the National Technical University of Athens. Refusing to give up, I slip through the tiny space not occupied by cafes on the popular sidewalk of Irakleidon Street and emerge bravely onto Pireos Street. The lines of the pedestrian crossings have faded. In any case, drivers don’t observe them and pedestrians don’t trust them. Presumably the responsible authorities think we are even. This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s weekly supplement K on March 16, 2008.

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