Leaving cars behind to save money, some find pedaling healthier too.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 14/08/12
Music saleswoman Elena Koniaraki, 39, rides her bicycle in Athens July 11th. The once-lowly bike is winning new fans in Greece every day. [Reuters]
Angel Kouda, 49, doesn't use a car anymore to drive to work at a video store in her western Athens neighborhood. Like many other Greeks, she's taken to a bicycle, partly out of necessity because of a crushing economic crisis that has seen workers take pay cuts, and tax hikes that pushed the cost of gasoline to 1.72 euros per liter, fifth highest in the world.
"A lot of my friends are using bicycles now," she told SETimes. "Greeks used to find it odd to see someone on a bicycle because they thought it's easier to use a car."
Greece is not known as bicycle-friendly, particularly in Athens, where even designated bus and taxi lanes are routinely used by cars, motorcycles and trucks. When plans were put forth a few years ago to create bicycle lanes, critics joked that the city would have to paint chalk outlines of victims.
"You won't see any Greeks in the Tour de France," said John Koklakizoglou, 27, who owns the Top Cycle bicycle shop.
"Greeks consider bikes as a means of transportation for poor people," he told SETimes. Now, however, he said, "The big percentage of my clients are not athletes, but normal people who want to ride on weekends or get around."
Indeed, the once-rare site of a bicyclist in Athens -- apart from clubs which organise regular mass rallies -- has been replaced by more people pedaling around to stores, open air markets and to work.
"The crisis has put more people on bikes but it's more than that," Kostas Dimitrikakis, 36, of the Athens Bicycle Club told SETimes. "People like to be together and have social activities … we have people with different economic status and people with old bikes and expensive bikes."
Filis Costas, 49, who owns a bicycle shop not far away, told SETimes that, "There has been a demand the last two years … people want cheaper products and used bicycles."
About 200,000 bicycles were sold in Greece in 2011, an increase of 25 percent from the previous year. More bicycle shops and repair businesses are sprouting up, too.
At the same time, new car sales fell 40 percent. About 2,200 gasoline stations have closed -- one-fourth of those operating two years ago -- and 25 percent of BMW auto outlets in Athens have shut their doors.
Koklakizoglou said many Greeks had been afraid to use bicycles in Athens, although smaller cities around the country with flatter terrain have more cyclists.
"There is a problem with the attitude of Greeks," Koklakizoglou told SETimes. "It's changing, but it's still dangerous [to ride a bicycle] in Athens."
Petsas agreed. "Athens is not friendly to biking, it's not only the mentality of the people but the profile of the roads. It's not so easy to use a bicycle," but more are turning to them and liking it, he said.