Did Athens’ ‘Great Walk’ Stumble?

The vision was simple: Athens would embark on a radical rethink of the heart of the Greek capital, slashing car lanes and parking spots and replacing traffic-clogged arterials with spacious tree-lined pedestrian boulevards. Conceived in 2019 and dubbed the “Great Walk” (“Megalos Peripatos” in Greek), the plan followed in the footsteps of several other successful pedestrianization projects in cities likeParis andBarcelona. In February 2019, during his successful campaign, mayoral candidate Kostas Bakoyiannis boasted that the vision of linking the ancient archeological wonders of central Athens along a car-free route could create “the most beautiful walk in Europe.” 

When the coronavirus pandemic came in early 2020, the lockdown that helped to still the city’s traffic from late March to June seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to accelerate the project; Bakoyiannis, now Athens’ mayor, launched it as a six-month pilot in May. 

Five months later, it’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong with the Great Walk. The new trees look dead, the paint on the pedestrian lanes has worn off and car traffic in the city’s downtown — already among the most congested in Europe — is somehow even worse. “It both did and did not work out,” said Bakoyiannis in a radio interview that made headlines in September. Though its future remains undecided, the project’s fast-track implementation attracted so much criticism during its five-month existence that a rethink is likely due. So what exactly went wrong?

The plan’s intentions certainly seemed good — the Great Walk aimed to encourage walking, biking and public transit in central Athens by clearing some major roads of vehicle traffic. That’s not a new idea. Remodeling the city’s street plan to link its archaeological sites via a largely car-free walk from the Old Panathenaic Stadium past the Acropolis to the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos has been an aspiration of Athens urban planners for four decades. That vision was partially achieved in 2003, with a new limited pedestrianized route that connected some ancient sites in advance of the 2004 Olympics.

The Great Walk was designed to take the next step, matching the pedestrian link between ancient sites with one between the city’s museums, so visitors could more easily walk from the Acropolis Museum to theNational Archeological Museum. This required a more radical street redesign than the 2003 project, taking away traffic from the city’s main commercial arteries, which feature many retailers, offices and government buildings. Crucially, building the Great Walk required reducing vehicle lanes on Panepistimiou Street, a major avenue known for the spectacular neoclassical buildings lining its route. By dropping car lanes from six to two, the city would create a broad, mainly pedestrian boulevard landscaped with trees, benches and cycle paths.

Accompanying this came a dramatic overhaul of road use. Following the example of cities such asMadrid, the Great Walk project would, in its pilot phase at least, bar through-traffic across a zone of central Athens. While emergency services, officials and people living or employed within the controlled zone would be allowed access, other drivers would only be permitted to drive there if traveling to a pre-confirmed parking spot. Anyone found breaking these rules, to be reinforced by random police checks, would face a €150 ($177) fine. 

After winning the election in September, Mayor Bakoyiannis initiated the project’s preliminary traffic study, due for delivery in July 2020. But then Covid-19 happened. Inspired by European cities that had swiftly adopted broader sidewalks and “Corona cycleways” during lockdowns, Athens fast-tracked the Great Walk. In May, before the traffic study was delivered, the city started a pilot version, with soft temporary barriers put in place before “hard” construction came into place. Former car lanes were repainted in bright colors and filled with planters and benches.

The city promised great improvements. “Athens will stop hiding its immense cultural wealth behind grey streets and concrete,” read the project’s publicity announcement. “Citizens and visitors will see and experience the positive change the project brings from day one.” 

The changes were indeed noticed from day one — but they weren’t all positive. Local police proved to be inadequate for filtering through-traffic, and post-lockdown Athenians began using their cars more than before the pandemic. With no restrictions enforced, regular traffic squeezed into far fewer lanes than before, resulting in chaos. After a public outcry, the city backtracked and began to reopen some lanes to cars on July 27. 

Congestion wasn’t the only problem. The project was also attacked on aesthetic and financial grounds. Trees and shrubs planted along the route appeared to have dried out within days, while many felt the choice of non-indigenous palm trees clashed with the Great Walk’s classical and neoclassical backdrop. Paint on pedestrian lanes wore off within weeks. In a city where summer temperatures routinely pass 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the skin-scorching metal benches chosen by the city became unusably hot. With street furniture costs at two million Euros and no specific planner or landscaper’s name attached to the project, Mayor Bakoyiannis drew fire from the opposition for rushing the project budget through a financial affairs committee on which — unlike the city council as a whole — he had an absolute majority. 

This lack of proper deliberation damaged the project. Dimitra Siatitsa, an architect and opposition member of the Great Walk’s steering committee, says that the mayor gave the committee notice for important morning meetings only late the night before and provided no minutes, leaving the committee without feedback on discussions. Bakoyiannis also proved reluctant to meet with business or civil society associations inside the committee, Siatitsa says. “If you implement a pilot phase through a fast track instead of a typical process,” she says, “a wider process of deliberation is essential.” 

George Yannis, the civil engineer who led the project’s traffic study, sees things differently. “This trial implementation’s goal is to deliberate,” he says. “Especially as far as Panepistimiou is concerned, which has been studied for over 20 years, no one can claim the project came out of nowhere, no one knew about it, and no deliberation took place.”

According to the findings from Yannis’s Great Walk study, the project has had some positive results. The concept of limiting traffic has been normalized, and pedestrians now take over central Athens on weekends. Cycling’s modal share has tripled since the Great Walk’s trial period. More Athenians are using taxis and motorcycles, with a 6% rise in share. 

But as it stands, the pilot appears to have placed the project’s future in jeopardy. Recent interviews with the mayor imply that the city may reboot the project in some form for 2021, possibly retaining some of the innovations. While many of the lanes and planters remain in place, Bakoyiannis recently suggested that the equipment would be re-distributed among Athens neighborhoods. Support in the city council is waning: Open City, the current main opposition party in the Athens assembly, withdrew support for the project in July, condemning its “sloppiness and naïveté.” Members of the opposition Athens is You party have suggested that the streets chosen for remodeling were the wrong ones, with one lawmaker saying that the “Great Walk didn’t walk” because, among other reasons, it was a plan that lacked a clear beginning, middle and end.

Other cities that dream of dramatic schemes to become greener and less congested might take note. The Great Walk could end up serving as a cautionary tale on the importance of thorough planning, transparency and alliance-building with stakeholders. In its hasty implementation, says Siatitsa, the Great Walk’s ended up creating an environment hostile to change, likely increasing difficulties for future attempts to combat congestion and pollution — in a city that badly needs them. “I feel that the momentum, and the initial goals on sustainable mobility and public space, have been abandoned,” she says. 

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