It’s a Bike, no a Bus, it’s a Train; yes, it’s Mass Transit!

After a week in Europe, you have to ask the question, “Where did our city planners go wrong.” The US road system is a terrible mess. Our supply of high horsepower fuel hungry vehicles is an even worse situation. It isn’t really worth answering the question about the planning. And no, you can’t blame it on supply and demand. Some things, shouldn’t be left to simple economics. What is done is done. Decisions made decades ago helped launch the takeover by the automobile. The urban blight and suburban sprawl, especially common in the Northeast United States is getting worse. The environment continues to take a hammering because of our reliance on automobiles and trucks fueled by oil. The effects of driving everywhere are showing in American waistlines too. We are a terribly unhealthy society. We don’t walk anywhere.

In Switzerland, France, and Italy, you see trains everywhere.

In Switzerland, Italy, and France (especially in the Alps), they have their problems with autos too. The much narrower and winding roads are inundated with traffic. You see a lot more scooters and motorcycles, but for the most part, they are also driven by combustion engines. We didn’t get to Zermatt, Switzerland, and that is a huge regret, because I was so excited to take photos in a village that has no cars. They simply don’t allow them. You either get there on foot, by bike, or by train.

Bikes are common means of transportation in Europe.

Much is made of mass transit in Europe. It is clearly superior to the systems in the states. Of course, these national systems take heat for being costly benefits of a welfare state. However, it is impossible to picture all those people moving about behind the wheels of even more cars. In the US, if you ride your bike to work, you must be a freak. If you try to walk anywhere but in a city center, you must be poor or crazy. Maybe both. After all, cars signify wealth and status too. In Geneva, they have buses, trams, and trains. People combine multiple modes of transport. Walking is usually part of the equation. Frequently, bicycling is too. Less cars makes it “safer,” though that is a relative term, because the streets seem just as congested.

By no means is bicycling in Europe safe. Sure, there is a recognition and respect for cyclists that you don’t get in the US, but shoulders on the roads are non-existent. We saw cyclists (without helmets of course) riding switch-backed roads in the French and Swiss Alps in scary conditions. There was no room to pass them and they were either squeezed between guardrails, or precariously close to the cliff edge. These cols look so romantic during Le Tour de France, Le Tour de Suisse, and the other big races that traverse the Alps, but the police close the roads for the cyclists. What you don’t see outside the frame of the video are the huge traffic jams caused by these closures. After spending a week here without a bike, I thought I would go crazy, but now I realize I might have been the sane one. I was imagining how beautiful those Alpine valleys were before the advent of roads.

In Raising the Bar, Clif Bar founder, Gary Erickson, talks a lot about the  Alpine adventures of his 20’s and 30’s. He frequently refers to the “red roads” and the “white roads.” He revisits the metaphor of heavily trafficked roads (red) and those less traveled (white) throughout his book. Again, after a week spent in and around Chamonix, I now fully understand what he means.

This gets MUCH better mileage than an SUV!

Still, recreational cycling is much different from cycling as a commuting solution. The number of bikes at the typical village or city train station is telling. This is a broad generalization, but it seems as if people are better off when they don’t have to drive everywhere. The infrastructure benefits, your personal health benefits, and the environment benefits. Many European countries are closer to “walking societies” than the US. When we should be borrowing ideas, we are ignoring them. Our planners build fake town centers that are really malls. They are all geared towards cars. The parking lots expand. The intersections get busier, and no one walks anywhere. What a shame.

We hear that this little model will be introduced in the US soon.

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