Athenians Take To Bicycles To Ride Out Crisis

As the Greek economy tanks and the center of Athens becomes jammed with protesters, more and more Athenians are turning to bicycles as a means of getting about the city. Until recently, it was mostly the poor or foolhardy who considered bicycling in Athens' notorious traffic. But new converts say they are saving gas money and getting to work despite the strikes and protests.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK. If you've been paying attention to our many stories on Greece lately, you know that its capital, Athens, has been crippled by almost daily public transportation strikes. Bus, train and tram workers are protesting the Greek government's austerity measures. Add to this the high gas prices and Athenian commuters begin to contemplate a desperate measure - riding a bicycle to get around. A bike in a city clogged by legendary traffic and offering no bike lanes. Joanna Kakissis has our story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's evening in Thiseion, a neighborhood near the ancient Doric temple of the fire god, Hephaestus. Hundreds of Greeks on bicycles are gathering near the area's cafes and street vendors. They're about to take a long ride to the beach. Some are wearing skintight cycling shorts and jerseys. Others, like Spiros Soulis, are in khakis and polo shirts. Soulis is a 38-year-old chemical engineer. He began riding a bicycle in Athens 20 years ago.

SPIROS SOULIS: Urban cyclists were very rare. I didn't meet anyone else that time. A lot of people saw bike with a more positive view than they used to because they had to.

KAKISSIS: In these times of austerity, more Greeks are seeing bicycles as the cheapest and most reliable way to get around. Christos Papadopoulos says he started riding a bike a couple of years ago to save gas money. He cycles 30 miles round-trip every day to his job as a school guard. But he didn't buy a helmet until he got hit by a car last year.

CHRISTOS PAPADOPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: I suppose I should be more afraid than anyone to ride a bicycle, he says, since I got into an accident and I got hurt. But I think people are slowly getting used to us and drivers are finally paying attention to us.

The cyclists flip on their bike lights and take off for the long ride to Varkiza, a seaside suburb. In just a few years, this group, called the Podilates, has grown from a few dozen members to several thousand.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: That sudden growth in interest spurred the Frangos brothers to open their bicycle shop in an Athens suburb. Ten years ago, the brothers said, bicycles were only for children and poor guys who couldn't afford cars. Now even Prime Minister George Papandreou cycles and so do other well-to-do Athenians. One is Christiana Germanou, a 37-year-old therapist. She lives in a wealthy suburb and has a nice car. She's buying a bike from the Frangos brothers.

CHRISTIANA GERMANOU: My place of work is really close to my house. It's not worth it, you know, to put gas in the car and drive over there. It's better to walk or to cycle.

KAKISSIS: Despite the growing interest in cycling, Antony Frangos admits the shop is still getting off the ground.

ANTONY FRANGOS: We cannot say that business has been booming. You know, it's a step by step. Maybe people likes the bicycles, but they don't have the amount of money to buy a good bicycle. By suggesting them to buy a helmet and a good quality helmet, they think I want to sell them, you know, something extra.

KAKISSIS: The store is empty for a long time after Christiana Germanou leaves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: The brothers perk up when a skinny man carrying a bouzouki comes in. But he's not looking to buy a bicycle. He just wants help tightening the strings on his Greek lute.

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KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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