Athenian bicyclists about to make a break through?

Article published on Aug. 17, 2011
community published
Article published on Aug. 17, 2011
by Ulrick Borch In Athens, a new map for bicycle routes has just seen light of day at the technical university. Upon request from the ministry of the environment, urban planner Thanos Vlastos has designed a map that aims to improve the infrastructure for daily bicycle commuters.
Yet, the success of the project depends on how successful it will be in building up political support and in securing funding in the midst of the financial crisis.

In an office at the institute of typography in the campus of the National Technical University of Athens transport engineer and urban planner Thanos Vlastos is a busy man. As he oversees the university from a 3rd floor office in a building situated on a hill high above campus two people who seem to be a colleague and a student have come by to ask questions, and in the background the phone is ringing regularly. A strong wind blows through the office and makes the bundles of maps and papers on his desk flutter. The walls are decorated by a calendar with pictures of Frida Kahlo and a kitsch portrait of Nietzsche that matches Thanos Vlastos’s grand mustache. Calmly behind his desk and fully concentrated Thanos Vlastos readily answers questions and explains his work for the ministry of the environment, energy, and climate change.

Based on several meetings with bicyclists the university has made an evaluation of how a new bicycling infrastructure can be developed. The evaluation has resulted in a map of 250 kilometres of designated bicycle paths, following the most important roads in Athens. This, Thanos Vlastos explains, is in accordance with the wishes of the bicyclists who have requested fast routes for commuting the up to 20-30 kilometres every day. Vlastov recognizes that this is a plan which could pose a serious challenge to the already busy traffic in Athens:

- We are aware that 250 kilometres of bicycle paths placed on the busiest roads will be a problem for traffic, but essentially, that is not a problem for us, since the ultimate goal of this proposal is to reduce traffic, to have fewer cars driving at lower speeds, Vlastos says.

The next step for the project is to have the map included in the law of the infrastructural master plan of Athens. But the ministry of the environment needs to open up for a public debate before a new law can be decided.

- It is currently a very optimistic plan. We have 250 kilometres of cycling superhighways. It is possible that other ministries will react negatively to this, Thanos Vlastos says with reference to the obligatory public debate.

Panagiotis Christofas from the ministry of the environment, energy, and climate change, is an avid bicyclist and on top of being a regular participant at bicycling event *Freeday* he bikes to work everyday. As the minister’s advisor of infrastructure, transport and networks, he has been working to improve the bicycling infrastructure in Athens.

- Hopefully within the next couple of months we will start the construction of a route of 20 kilometres from the centre of Athens to Piraeus by the sea, including a few kilometres following the beach a few kilometres further to the south. Afterwards, the plan is to proceed with another route down town, but we don’t want to rush things, so we are taking it one route at a time, Christofas says.

Furthermore, Christofas explains that over the last couple of months different ministries have been working together to allow pilot tests, where bicyclists have been able to use bus lanes and to bring their bikes onto specific parts of the metro system.

One important factor for the success of the program is the reaction of the other part-takers. Both Vlastos and Christofas admit that it is likely that the cars that already struggling to find room for parking and sometimes even park illegally on the pavement will be unhappy to see one part of the road given to bicycles. Also the response from the other ministries can determine the future of the project. For instance, a cynical taxi driver I spoke to claimed that the government would be unlikely to support a policy that would limit their revenue from taxes on gasoline. Another party consists of the communities of Attica. The larger metropolitan area of Athens consists of 14 distinct communities, and each community can take either a supportive or a passive stance.

The second and very significant problem is whether the government will be willing to find the means to create bicycle routes, while the financial crisis is forcing cut downs on social welfare.

Giorgos Amiras is a member of the city council of Athens, and he is a strong supporter of green solutions. He pictorially writes in an email interview that the city of Athens and the responsible ministries of Greece have been hit by ‘the bicycle meteorite’ as several social movements such as Freeday are popping up in Greece who support the use of bicycles for transport. He applauds citizen responsibility and remains doubtful of whether politicians will prove willing to commit to new green policies.

- Citizens are more prepared to accept changes in their lifestyle than politicians. The latter, being afraid of everything including their own shadows, are opposed to any kind of change for fear of loosing votes and their parliamentary salaries. This attitude is the reason why Greece got so close to bankruptcy.  So, when it comes to the financial and social development of Greece I believe that using bicycles we can achieve a whole lot more than our politicians ever will, Amiras says.

Although he says it has been necessary to fight to convince politicians to promote bicycling, Vlastov sees an opportunity for change. As he gets up to show a collection of books he has written on the subject over the last decade, Vlastov says he has been observing a change in Greek politics that he hopes will result in more bicycles on the streets:

- The hope lies with the young people who are more pro-bicycling. Also, within the last years there has been a change in the mentality of some politicians, who have asked us to draw these maps and are showing willingness to fund an expansion of the bicycle routes. 15 years ago I was one of the first to promote sustainable mobility and we didn’t get a lot of attention, but now more people are talking about bicycles as an alternative to cars.

Photos:

Photo 1: Example of a bicycle path lifted above the pavement, a more expensive solution

Photo 2: When the road is narrow, the bicycle paths can also function as pavement for the pedestrians. ‘This way the pedestrians avoid having to walk onto the road and get hit by a car’, Thanos Vlastos says.

Photo 3: Example of a cheaper solution where the bicycle path is demarcated only by a low fence

Photo 4: Bicycle paths can be used by everyone

Photo 5: Also at the National Technical University of Athens they have bicycle paths