Biking in Athens Is a Hazardous Game of Freedom
How bike-friendly is the Greek capital and what migh
It is obvious that Greek driving culture is unique. In other words, it does not compare to that of any other European Union member-state, since Greece often ranks last among European countries when it comes to driving matters. Every day, two people perish, four become quadriplegic, eight are left paraplegic, and 50 are wounded, according to European Commission Data, aspresented by the Special Committee on Road Safety.
Let us consider a regular day, when you decide to get your bike out of the shed and into the sun, while you can exercise and relax. A few short meters into the ride, successive potholes come at you, seemingly getting deeper on purpose, on one hand testing your balance and patience and on the other hand, demonstrating your city bike’s limits. Most Greek bikers grasp that “city bikes” are not recommended for any city in Greece, with few exceptions, like Trikala.
You barely reach the bike route, the one you are fortuitous enough to live close to, because naturally, a motorcycle driving opposite to the traffic flow jumped out of nowhere and took you by surprise.
It is expected that no driver will yield and offer you priority, or even the necessary attention, thereby squeezing you between their moving car and the (thankfully?) parked truck. At this point, a white thought bubble appears, quoting what you have probably heard many times over: “Aren’t you afraid to bike around Athens?” Which is a rational concern, but also a suggestion in disguise somewhere along the same lines of “Aren’t you afraid to walk around alone at night?” Soon enough, all these rational fears will bring about breathing problems.
At the Tavros overground train station, the bike path is cut off, and one has to cross the rail tracks perpendicularly to continue on the safe route. Part of the bike path is protected by fences from the, infinite and infinitely careless car drivers. However, the road crossing, where the biker has to actually cross the road, is not protected. Can you guess what replaced the protective fences? An illegally parked car, most likely dumped there when its owner decided to grab some food from the taverna across the street. They must have been too hungry to spare the time to locate an appropriate and legal parking spot, one which would not impede on their fellow citizens’ lives or breach their rights.
Naturally, the Traffic Police shines in its absence in these cases. There have been many instances when groups of cyclists have waited in vain for the authorities, for over an hour. By not showing up, they become quiet co-conspirators to the crime.
You move past the estrangement from logic and common sense that rules this country, and continue on your ride. You contemplate, once again, that relaxation cannot be achieved through cycling. Instead, you bike faster. At least you can get some exercise and blow off some steam.
Out of nowhere, a pedestrian couple blocks your track, because the sidewalk was not wide enough for them. They just had to stroll on the bike path. You ring your bell to no avail.
Dear pedestrians, please use the sidewalk, if not to do cyclists a favour, do it for your own peace and quiet. This way, everyone could be happy. If there is none, we understand your predicament and welcome you to the safe lane of red asphalt that belongs to us.
As you follow the route along the Ilissos river, which is practically a landfill, the breeze helps your mind drift. Of course, the discontinuity of the path has you riding on the street anew, until you can infer where it starts off again. When with some luck -and you might need a lot of it- you manage to find the right path and attempt to get on the bike route, you realise that you really have to climb on it. Apparently, during path construction they failed to design a proper inclination so that bikers would not have to climb up and down from one level to another, resulting in frustration and unnecessary strain to the bike frame.
As you approach the end of the bike lane, you start your return trip during which riding on the street is unavoidable. You cannot return on two wheels via a bike lane, or without hearing the all time classic of rudeness “There’s a bike path, you know!” from a taxi driver who probably wanted to race in the narrow streets of Moschato but was impeded by a bike.
Normally, this rude behavior should surprise you, but a lot of things are no longer surprising in Greece, and maybe this is one of the buds of the evil sprouting. The truth is, cyclists need to continuously reclaim their space, every single second they are out there. It is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. The public sphere has an obligation to accept cyclists, making their life more bearable.
On the bright side, group bike excursions are organised every Friday by the “Freeday-Cyclists.” Habitually, many people congregate since there is strength in numbers. What is more, every neighbourhood has its own team. In Kallithea, for instance, they are called “Monday On Wheels.” These groups provide a great opportunity to practice your hobby, without fear but with passion. They also allow you to become acquainted with others who love their environmentally-friendly vehicles as much as you do.
If you are looking for bike paths around Greece, Dr. Konstantinos Athanasopoulos, a transportation engineer (PhD, National Technical University of Athens) who specializes in city planning, has created this map, providing bikers with precious info, including 192 bike routes in Greece and 86 bike rental stores.
When will the public administration effectively integrate cycling into urban transport options? When will municipalities start treating the bicycle as a vehicle for everyday use? Bike paths are scarce, almost non-existent. There is no institutional framework defining both cyclists’ behavior and behavior of others towards them.
Due to the rapid deterioration of the financial status of many Greeks, the number of vulnerable two-wheeled vehicles (motorcycles and bicycles) in circulation has inflated, without the necessary infrastructure adjustments. However, there are technical solutions through which collisions between cars and bicycles can be avoided. For example, an auditory notification system that alerts the driver when a cyclist is riding next to him.
In the midst of the crisis, new motorways are paved in Greece, why not bike paths too? Meanwhile, the subject of road education in schools is still treated as a luxury. Will the huge gap of sustainable and safe transport every be filled?
European studies have successfully demonstrated that a rise in bicycle transportation causes an overall reduction in traffic accidents. Bicycle infrastructure should definitely be prioritized, a task that requires bike paths, proper traffic signs, and not fragmentary efforts.
Bicycles are an important means of transport for cities that carries additional advantages: it is ecological and it contributes to people’s physical activity. Expanding the flow of cyclists will contribute to the decrease in traffic congestion. Further to all this, one could reference the benefits it induces on mental health and socialisation.
“Thanks to bicycles, women went about with no one’s help, left their homes behind and enjoyed the hazardous game of freedom. Because of it, the restrictive corset that hindered them from pedaling, moved from their closets into the museum,” wrote Eduardo Galeano and suffragette Susan B. Anthony. They confirm that cycling has contributed more than anything or anyone else to women’s suffrage.
Changing the established practices of users of the transport network presupposes awareness, education, information, control, a reliable punitive system and proper planning. This way, the rights of drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists are secured.
This article was originally published in Greek on PopagandaGr