Priorities of Pandemic Mobility

Thanks predominantly to its geography and the human race’s inclination towards xenophobia, Greece has become heralded as the shield of Europe. A thankless task in a racist war where nobody wants to take the blame for the human rights atrocities being committed, but everyone wants a share of the riches on offer to continue committing them. The fault therefore doesn’t lie with Greece or any other single country within the EU, but with the capitalist patriarchal system from which the EU was born. Until we have total systemic change, very little will continue to improve. For while there are those that suffer, we all suffer.

This has been the introduction to an article about a bike lane; and is the background to every decision, and every bit of societal analysis I find myself making in Greece. It’s why, during the first global COVID lockdown in 2020 when Athens municipality shuttered the doors to any aid projects, mine and others’ first thought was that this was finally the chance they had been waiting for to eradicate the undesirable elements of society. Rather than helping to shelter and feed those in need, the most tangible action taken (outside of aggressive policing of the streets) was to build a new bike lane in the city centre.

When I first heard about the lane, I was at once intrigued and conflicted. Reading about the kilometres of bike paths popping up all over the world to support transit during the pandemic, I was aware of this positive groundswell. But here, in the city I’d been toiling away in for the last 5 months trying to make ends meet for society’s most vulnerable, it felt like a misplaced and even crass move. If people are starving, should we really be spending thousands of euros on yellow paint and plant pots? Phrased as such it appears to be a philosophical question, but with further analysis I would argue that there is a clear answer.

Generally speaking, cycling infrastructure is some of the best investment you can make in a city. Anything that encourages cycling in-fact, can have huge knock-on impacts to areas of life that you might not expect including cleaner, quieter, safer and more sustainable streets. Public physical health seems an obvious benefit, but mental health is equally affected and important. There are also massive all-round economic benefits: healthier citizens means fewer trips to the doctor and less strain on costly healthcare services, individuals who go car-free free up money to spend elsewhere and local economies are boosted with cyclists more frequent stops than drivers. Then the cost of cycling infrastructure itself is also much less expensive and much longer lasting than anything built for cars.

As with any urban project however, there is never a fix-all solution. It is vital to consider the local situation before imitating a solution that has worked elsewhere. Bike lanes are fantastic, but to improve a city, even in comparison to other cycling solutions, there are sometimes better, cheaper, more relevant alternatives.

One first must consider whether the area is in need of a bike lane, is there existing demand? Although there is a rhetoric of ‘build it and they will come’, there are also arguments for the contrary; particularly if the planning was rushed and the lane ineffective in its design making it difficult to use for new riders, let alone for the experienced and determined. Considering that rider-ship demographic is also important. Who does a bike lane serve? Has it been built to link two rich areas of the city and therefore just serve to further stigmatise cycling as for the privileged and white skinned, or does it benefit more diverse neighbourhoods representative of the city’s entire population? Even if it is in a white rich neighbourhood, the local inhabitants should be consulted on their needs and demands for such a project. Cycling, and ergo bike lanes, are trendy and a drawing factor for the economic elite. If used as a marketing tool they have the potential to increase property price speculation for the hands of tourism and investment to snatch up. And it’s all good and well to build a cycle lane, but if there is no education, no human factor in teaching both cyclists and cars how to use it, it could end up worse than useless. Coupled with bad design, it could be downright dangerous.

Now although this paragraph of negatives is bigger than the positives, they are not intrinsic, and a good bike lane should incur none of them, while benefiting from every positive. In the case of this new lane in Athens however, having ridden it a fair few times by now, I would argue that sadly, every single one of these negatives does apply.

fig.1 image description: The start of the bike lane is blocked by protective plant pots to the extent that there is no way to enter the bike lane
fig.2 image description: A collage of three images, one shows a place for cars to turn right with no safety measures to watch for bicycles, one shows where the yellow painted bike path ends for no discernible reason and becomes green, and one shows the thick black marks that obscure the yellow bike path’s visibility.

The design itself is not only nonsensical [fig.1] but puts riders at risk [fig.2], especially in combination with (in my biased experience) the flagrant lack of basic understanding from drivers, pedestrians and also from cyclists of how to use and interact with it while avoiding near-death collisions. Although I would question the writer’s definition of an “actual cyclist” an article in Ekathimerini states that, “Any actual cyclists consulted seem to have been so desperate for some gesture [towards cycling investment] that they did not insist that new bicycle lanes be logical or sustainable.” Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis describes the intention of the lane being to improve the surrounding neighbourhood. Having spent quite a lot of time delivering food aid in the neighbourhood, I would highly dispute his interpretation of what would benefit the neighbourhood. Building a bike lane that links the parliament building with the newly renovated Ommonia square as part of the “great walk” archaeological route means that the primary user is expected to be a tourist, and the primary beneficiaries the dormant property owners waiting for the right moment to renovate and then jump on airbnb. Not what I would interpret as locally beneficial.

So it’s clear that in regards to the lane itself, thanks to the haste with which it was built, serious questions and issues were not addressed. These are questions and issues that would apply to urban development anywhere in the world, but in Athens, it is impossible not to consider the socio-economic and political context in which the lane is situated — that of the still very real “migrant crisis” referenced in the introduction. It is true that the EU allots a budget to Greece specifically for dealing with this crisis; however people still get through the armoured net, so the reality is that there is a large demographic of people on the move who are crouching undocumented, vulnerable and in need of help at the bottom of the city’s economic pyramid. They, in equal proportion and in every municipal decision, need to be considered in the city’s hierarchy of priorities. In Athens where there isn’t exactly a budgetary surplus, these decisions need to be made with the utmost certainty that spending will have a real tangible benefit to as much of the population as possible, with special attention paid to those at risk.

As far as I can see, the most tangible benefit to building this bike lane is to create marketing fodder. Thanks to a kilometre or so of green paint Mayor Bakoyannis gets to join the rest of the global cities in proclaiming the huge strides taken for active mobility during the pandemic. Sure, in a long game perhaps this and future projects will put Athens back on the map and eventually drive the economy back to health with a possibility of that benefiting all corners of society. But I would argue that that is not reason enough to ignore the needs of a large swathe of a city’s population in the meantime.

Within all of this criticism I’d like to hope that there will be a few people, ideally young and open-minded that genuinely benefit from this lane both now and into the future. But judging from the state the lane is already in, even this could be wishful thinking. Within a couple of months the lane had been shrunk to half its original size and the green and yellow paint was worn and blackened to the point of being almost invisible. If existing bike lanes in the rich northern suburbs are anything to go by, this one will be a mere relic at the side of the road within a year.

What I can guarantee will still be very much around in a year however is the crisis of poverty and migration in Athens and the EU. For as long as the city’s population includes the demographic of people on the move, the municipality must include them in holistic decision making. I don’t believe that building this bike lane would have been the answer to the question of active mobility in Athens if migrants, and other vulnerable demographics had truly been considered. Active mobility absolutely has an incredibly important role to play in improving our cities and lives in general, but to get there we need solutions that start at the root cause of urban issues to help create a more equitable city. Human solutions and soft implementation rather than hard infrastructure. There are countless articles and studies that document these tools including education, free community based bike maintenance, and incentive programs. But the crux is that these need to be tailored to the population and the city. As said by Adonia Lugo,

“If we want to make our streets better, we need to consider who is using those streets”.