Pedestrians protest with their feet
Last Saturday, anyone passing through downtown Athens would likely have come across a different kind of protest march. A few hundred people gathered outside the City of Athens Cultural Center and walked the streets of downtown Athens and Exarchia to demand the simplest of things: a little bit more space. These were people like us: city folk, parents with children in strollers, elderly people with mobility difficulties, and young people. Space has never been sufficient in this city, at least not in the second half of the 20th century. The situation today is one we are all too familiar with. And while on a daily basis we see the tribulations of motorists on Athens streets, a bigger, parallel tragedy is ignored: Millions of Athenians who get around on foot suffer every day in a manner that is only befitting of a developing nation – not to mention parents with young children or the disabled who are doomed to the confines of their homes because this disgusting state of affairs has been left to perpetuate itself. The awakening of this – albeit tiny – movement of pedestrians demanding a fundamental right represents a small ray of hope. In Thessaloniki, for example, there is a movement called the Street Panthers which has spread to other cities in Greece and is known for a more proactive stance: They stick orange stickers on the windscreens of illegally parked vehicles so that next time the driver may reconsider. I will never forget the following scene I was witness to a few months ago in Athens: A Panther was busy working a street when two municipal policemen approached him. They were so thrilled by what he was doing that they asked him to give them some stickers too. All this seems to be taking place in a parallel universe, because on a societal level things are moving at a snail’s pace. While it is considered perfectly normal to park right in front of Athens University or on the new pedestrian strip of Massalias Street, protesting pedestrians are seen as merely picturesque characters. If society, however, is dragging its feet, there are supposed to be authorities guiding us in the right direction. At least on paper. In fact, the City of Athens does not have a single campaign on its agenda to promote pedestrian rights. Meanwhile, the relevant authorities tolerate blatant breaches of the law and the traffic code. They accept this stoically, arguing that there’s nothing they can do about it. In contrast, we see constant advertisements for the benefit of motorists (announcements regarding the construction of new parking lots, for example). Constantly bending under the pressure of political expediency, our authorities have condemned city and citizen to the current situation. But this cost, as vague and immaterial as it is on the surface, affects every single one of us. And we end up paying for it every day.