By Steven Hill, Montréal Review, May 2012
During a recent trip across western Europe by train, my frequent companions were the many strangers, visible outside my train window, who could be seen traversing a vast network of bike paths and walking trails that crisscross the cities and countryside. Europeans of all ages, including seniors, can be seen pedaling from home to town and back again with their daily bread in their handlebar baskets. Yet they are not necessarily out for a leisurely jaunt, in many cases this is their preferred transportation for running errands.
One of the ironies of Europe is that, while it is leading the world in high-tech transportation innovations, such as high-speed bullet trains and fuel-efficient autos, it also specializes in low-tech options. Whether in Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Rome, Barcelona, Budapest or any of the thousands of small towns that dot the countryside, bicyclists and pedestrians are on the go. When I was in Umeå, Sweden, a smallish city several hundred miles northeast of Stockholm, I saw people of all ages, noticeably the elderly, pedaling their bikes around town and along the riverbank. In Amsterdam I saw so many bicyclists that you have to be just as wary of bikes as of automobiles when you cross the street, particularly because bicyclists aren’t as loud. In Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, where I stayed once for several weeks, I went walking every afternoon along the numerous Wanderwegs — walking paths — that crisscrossed the brilliant yellow fields and blossoming hills. And I had plenty of company: it seemed that for many Germans, walking and bicycling are more than hobbies, they are a way of life.
Europeans seem to be literally biking and walking their way to health, and research bears this out. One study found that whereas walking and cycling account for less than a tenth of all urban trips in American cities, they account for a third of all such trips in Germany and an incredible half in the Netherlands. The average was 36 percent of all trips across eight different European countries, compared with 7 percent for the United States. Perhaps most striking are the large differences in transportation behavior among the older populations of various countries. I am constantly surprised by the number of senior citizens pedaling along the bike paths on the side of the road. Walking actually increases with age in both the Netherlands and Germany. The Dutch and Germans who are seventy-five and older make roughly half their trips by foot or bike, compared to only 6 percent of trips for Americans age sixty-five and older. Cycling is almost nonexistent among the American elderly, but it accounts for a quarter of all trips made by the Dutch elderly. This activity not only provides the Dutch and German elderly with valuable physical exercise, but it also assures them a level of mobility and independence that greatly enhances their quality of life.
It also contributes to longer life expectancy. The European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have much lower rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity than the United States. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, for example, have obesity rates only a third of the U.S. rate, and Germany’s rate is only half as high. Also, the average healthy life expectancies in those four European countries are 2.5 to 4.4 years longer than the U.S. life expectancy, even though their per capita health expenditures are about half those of the United States.
In the U.S., walking and cycling are discouraged by living environments that are geared for automobiles. A range of poor public policy choices have made walking and cycling inconvenient, unpleasant, and, above all, unsafe. The most obvious symbol of better European policy is their massive and ever-expanding network of bike paths, which provide completely separate rights-of-way for cyclists; Amsterdam alone has more than three hundred miles of bike lanes. One Dutch city has five bicycle parking garages, one of which can hold five thousand bikes. Just as important, the bike paths and lanes in the Netherlands and Germany form a truly integrated, coordinated network, covering both rural and urban areas. Unlike the fragmented cycling routes in the United States, Dutch and German bikeway systems serve practical destinations for everyday travel, not just recreational attractions for young urban cycling enthusiasts.
Other nations besides Germany and the Netherlands have embraced bicycling, both for its health benefits and to lower reliance on autos for transportation, especially in cities. In 2007, Paris followed the lead of Amsterdam and other cities and introduced a highly successful program that put over twenty thousand bicycles on the streets, rented from a thousand unmanned kiosks located around the city. The rental cost is about a dollar, plus a $200 deposit paid for with a credit card to ensure the bicycle’s safe return. You rent the bicycle from one spot, ride it to work, and drop it at another kiosk nearby (and then your deposit is credited back). Commuters have taken to the program with enthusiasm, prompting one journalist to write that Paris, the land of the Tour de France, has gone “cycling mad.” These bike-sharing programs now can be found across the European continent, from Vienna to Barcelona, from Rome to Oslo.
Pedestrian-only zones have become so widespread that they can now be found in virtually every European city. In large cities, such zones often encompass much of the city center and the expansive public squares, providing sizable areas where pedestrians have their own right-of-way. Of utmost importance in a densely populated settlement, the square preserves a sense of openness and light in the living environment. Many of the main streets and cozy alleyways terminate at or crisscross the central plaza, so the urban design literally channels the feng shui energy of the city into a focal point or hub, like a magnifying glass focuses sunlight. This gives a particular sense of space, an energy flow, to the living environment.
The concept of a square is ancient, and for hundreds of years every European village had its own square or commons, and most still do. These ancient spaces still linger, even as they have been nearly decimated in the United States by the car culture and shopping malls. Most American towns don’t have a center anymore, and few American cities have a grand central plaza (though many have nice parks scattered here and there). The disappearance of the central square is an unquantifiable loss, for this sense of the ancient harkens back to our deepest human longing for community and contact, of shared, womblike physical space as opposed to atomized and individualized space.
Besides the overall urban design, other features sensitive to the needs of European pedestrians and bicyclists help create an environment friendly to them. These include extensive use of traffic-calming techniques in residential neighborhoods (speed bumps and narrow traffic lanes, for example), rigorous traffic education of motorists, and strict enforcement of regulations protecting pedestrians and bicyclists. Dedicated pathways and route systems help insulate cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles, which are involved in most bicyclist and pedestrian deaths or injuries. Denis Baupin, the transportation chief of Paris responsible for the City of Light’s hugely successful bicycle-sharing program, also has reduced auto speed limits to just nineteen miles an hour on a thousand streets and closed many to cars altogether. Baupin has changed the face of mobility in Paris, making it easier for pedestrians, bikers, and users of public transportation, and less accessible to car drivers. All of these efforts are guided by a philosophy that recognizes that efficient and affordable low-tech transportation methods are crucial to the democratization of mobility, as well as to the reduction of carbon emissions caused by more conventional modes of transportation.
But in the car-dominant United States, authorities have made only a few halfhearted attempts to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, with most measures falling far short of the need if they cost much money or would inconvenience automobile drivers. A lack of political will and vision have prevented Americans from enjoying the health, transportation, and quality-of-life benefits that result from more walking and cycling and less car travel.
[Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is a political writer whose latest books are “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age” (www.EuropesPromise.org) and “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: 2012 Election Edition” (www.10Steps.net).