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COVID-19 Creating Uneasy Breathing Space for Athens' Grand Walk

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Τhe Grand Walk of Athens. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Tatiana Bollari)

ATHENS – Usually awash with tourists and the young who've made Greece's capital a summer hot spot and brought a buzz to the little alleyway restaurants and bars, this year COVID-19 is keeping them away, the streets far less full.

Athens is not a charming city, a concrete pit of ugliness and graffiti and decrepit buildings, abandoned classical homes showing the wear and tear of modern urban life, which new Mayor Kostas Bakoyiannis is trying to change with beautification.

There's now an experimental Grand Walk for pedestrians and bicyclists, lanes for cars and trucks and buses and taxis being cut out and the crime den of Omonia Square, a hangout for migrants too, now has a fountain as it did in its 1950's-60's heyday.

With fewer tourists than expected bringing a slight resurgence of the Coronavirus, the New Democracy government, not wanting a second lockdown, has made masks mandatory in many public spaces.

That's being widely defied or ignored but you can see many people on public transport, especially the metro, and in stores, wearing masks although social distancing is just a slogan now and the numbers are down in the capital, with many concerts barred.

The Grand Walk, reported The Voice of America (VOA) in a feature, is an ambitious plan to reclaim nearly half of the city’s main car lanes, turning them into about 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) of car-free pedestrian walkways and 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) for bicycles.

of bicycle lanes.

That links the capital’s main monuments, including the greatest landmark: the Acropolis, where there is already a pedestrian walkway, if you don't count violating motorbike riders.

“For some 35 years there has been talk about the need to transform Athens,” Bakoyiannis told VOA. “It took us a generation of efforts, but it is high time to actually do it,” he said.

“The project will not only enhance the city’s physical appeal, but most importantly, alter the lives of its residents,” he added, even if there aren't as many walkers on the Grand Walk just yet, the setup a temporary experiment to be made permanent.

“From Berlin to Bogota, cities across the globe are dealing with a series of emergency measures to deal with the pandemic,” Bakoyannis said. “This is our answer, also, to the pressing need of helping safeguard public health.”

By freeing up space, authorities anticipate the project will help avoid congestion in the Greek capital, allowing walkers to keep proper distance, containing the spread of the deadly virus, the report added.

There's no better way to discover a city than by walking it, something that's been difficult in Athens with the capital crowded with vehicles and sidewalks filled with trees and obstacles and people having to compete with cars on the streets.

DON'T WATCH YOUR STEP

Even as they enjoy the stroll along the walkway, residents and tourists are wary of COVID-19 although they don't have to walk side-by-side with others, the virus keeping many visitors away from Greece and the capital, and masks abounding in places.

The Grand Walk is coming at a cost during a time when the lockdown that closed businesses temporarily – some for good – has cut deep into the economy and held back a growing recovery from a near decade-long crisis worsened by austerity measures.

The $57 million price tag, including a spray of $5,700 steel benches, has come under fire from critics, especially the political rivals of the ruling New Democracy who said it's too expensive for a city where public art was created but has little of it now.

With nearly half the country's population of 11 million leaving in Athens and the surrounding area, the capital has been congested for years and some said cutting vehicle lanes is worsening traffic and creating jams and backups and pollution.

“No one objects to the need for more walkways and bicycle lanes,”  Nikos Sofianos, a leftist-leaning member of the Athens municipal council told VOA. “But this is clearly a hasty, slapdash decision planned and whipped up without a thorough study - all for the sake of serving the needs of Athens’ tourist image.”

He didn't mention the country survives on tourism that brings in as much as 18-20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 174.88 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and in 2019 saw 34 million tourists spend some 18 billion euros ($20.62 billion.)

“The impacts are dire,” said Sofianos. “Businesses are suffering, unable to load their goods because of the traffic restrictions. Workers, too, are unable to get to their jobs,” he said, perhaps not knowing there's a metro or public transport.

After a cyclist rammed into a blind man, injuring him seriously, criticism stepped up although the Grand Walk has made walking safer in a city where the idea of bicycle lanes years ago would have needed drawing victim chalk circles ahead of time.

While 30 percent more Athenians are now walking in their city, a study by the country’s top engineering school showed the plan’s first-month trial run was having little immediate impact.

Forecasts of a 30 percent increase in the use in public transport was met only by a 2 percent rise, while traffic congestion soared by as much 30 percent.

“The first steps of every project are difficult,” said Giorgos Yiannis, a leading transportation expert. “Every change has a cost,” he said, adding that planners expected the initial vehicle logjams they expect to ease sharply after three months.

With the major opposition former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA opposed to the scheme, as it is with every New Democracy plan, project or idea, Sofianos wants the Grand Walk experiment ended and more cars back on the streets, but Bakoyiannis said no, indicating it's his walk and he's not going to balk.