TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
With the blessings of mayors and the enthusiasm of cyclists, 2013 has seen urban bike-sharing flourish across Greece.
“In most municipalities the acceptance was beyond our imagination.”
By Pierre Herman
Blessed with a dry Mediterranean climate and more hours of sunshine than several northern European countries put together, it’s a wonder urban bike-sharing never made it to Greece any earlier.
Greek cities have also long suffered from extreme air pollution (Athens was long reputed to have among Europe’s worst air quality), not helped at all by Greeks’ love-affair with the automobile.
But it took a catastrophic economic recession for a green alternative transport like bike-sharing to finally make its grand, if belated, entrance.
While the economy was in fact probably more of a coincidence than a driver for change, the real missing link was a group of entrepreneurs and biking enthusiasts who were willing to risk it in a big way to make bike sharing a reality in Greece.
Harris Siakantaris is CEO of Cyclopolis, a company that designs, manufactures and manages urban bike-share systems across a growing portfolio of Greek cities.
“It looks more like a community than a company,” admits Siakantaris, who’s been riding for most of his 45 years.
“My background, and that of most of the people at Cyclopolis, is rather alternative”, he adds coyly.
“We have a flat structure and some nights after work we play music. Most of us are amateur musicians too.”
Since its inception in 2010, Cyclopolis has grown to include 9 systems across Greece including Athens, Olympia, Marathon, Nafplio, and others, all with the goal of expanding sustainable urban mobility and meeting the exacting needs of Greek cities.
Siakantaris explains that bike culture is really nothing new in Greece.
“The story of the bond between Greece and biking is a long one. It seemed to weaken after the 60’s when Greece started becoming richer and the private car started dominating Greek people’s dreams. But it never broke. Nowadays, it’s stronger again.”
However the real turning point in the “bloom” began in 2005, with prices at the pumps hitting new highs, and the launch of Freeday, a now immensely popular movement which attracts several hundreds of cyclists to its weekly night-time rides, departing from below the Acropolis and lasting over 4 hours (and between 30-50km) as they weave their way through Athens’ darkened streets.
According to Siakantaris, this caught the eye of the media, which in turn spread the trend beyond the capital and to the creation of new groups in the suburbs and peripheral cities.
As for the success of the Cyclopolis‘ systems, Siakantaris says: “In most municipalities the acceptance was beyond our imagination.”
“We didn’t really have to persuade mayors for the usefulness of bike-sharing, they already wanted it. And in Aegio, for example, a month after the system’s trial launch we had more than 600 users, more than the system could serve.”
Rather than having trouble attracting support from cities and users, the real problem was funding. With bank loans a dead-end for all but the most tried and tested of investments, Cyclopolis applied for a Greek public “Green fund” for environmental friendly investments.
“So we helped municipalities take advantage of it and in the end, we found ourselves with 9 installed systems throughout Greece.”
Siakantaris describes their experience in Aegio: “It’s a beautiful town in Western Greece, near Patras, of nearly 25,000 residents, with an active student community and a beautiful route by the sea, lovely to see on a bike, but, literally [there was] no bike infrastructure, no bike lanes, nothing.”
With infrastructure now in place Cyclopolis‘s going concern is attracting funding in the form of sponsorship, and Siakantaris says he has his sights on markets beyond Greece as well.
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