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COVID-19 Creates Leg Room for Greece’s Congested Capital

An usherette wearing a face shield stands in front of the audience at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, Greece, after the site was reopened for performances on July 15, 2020.

For all its ancient glory, marvelous monuments and historic core, Athens is largely an ugly, 20th-century metropolis that grew rapidly and lawlessly in recent decades. Its population has tripled and the fleet of cars on its streets has surged to over 2 million, or about 20 times more than the tiny European capital’s roads can hold.

But now, authorities are striking back, using the novel coronavirus pandemic to free up space and eliminate gas-guzzling cars, hoping to recreate Europe’s most ancient city while facilitating social distancing.

Dubbed the Great Walk of Athens, the ambitious plan intends to reclaim almost half of the city’s main car lanes, turning them into about 7 kilometers of car-free pedestrian walkways and 3 kilometers of bicycle lanes, linking them to the capital’s main monuments, including the greatest landmark: the Acropolis.

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

“The project will not only enhance the city’s physical appeal, but most importantly, alter the lives of its residents,” he added.

With Greece now open to international travelers, the project -- among the largest urban initiatives in a European capital -- is key to the country’s desperate drive to lure back tourists.

Robust action and nationwide lockdowns taken by Greece at the start of the pandemic helped authorities quash the spread of the coronavirus, making this sun-soaked country a stunning success story in the way it handled the global health crisis.

With just over 3,983 confirmed cases and 194 deaths, according to state statistics issued Sunday, the country's casualty toll from COVID-19 is far lower than that of its European peers, positioning Greece as a safe choice for holiday travel.

“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.

Under any other circumstance, most Athenians would be balking at the plan. But after rediscovering their city and the delight of taking morning, noon or afternoon strolls during the two-month-long lockdown, many seem receptive to the sustainable mobility project.

Still, the $57 million price tag, including a spray of $5,700 steel benches, has come under fierce fire, with critics largely complaining about excessive costs and expenses that they anticipate will balloon as the project proceeds.

What is more, critics accuse planners of proceeding with insufficient foresight, ultimately adding to, rather than alleviating, traffic congestion in Athens, home to half of the country’s population of 11 million.

“No one objects to the need for more walkways and bicycle lanes,” said Nikos Sofianos, a leftist-leaning member of the Athens municipal council. “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.”

“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.”

Critics have also decried a lack of provisions for the handicapped after a cyclist rammed a blind man, injuring him seriously.

While 30 percent more Athenians have gone afoot since the launch of the project last month, a study by the country’s top engineering school showed this week that 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.”

But, he said, planners anticipate congestion to ease up significantly by the end of the three-month trial period.

Even so, municipal council members like Sofianos insist the mayor should pull the plug on the project entirely – a move Bakoyiannis has ruled out.

The mayor has instead invited critics to help tweak the contentious plan, vowing to give Athens a long-overdue makeover by 2022.