Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What I learned in Europe

I recently had the good fortune to have taken part in a school trip to Europe.  We visited six countries in 10 days.  It was a whirlwind tour and an experience of a lifetime for the students who took part.  Having said that, it was also a fantastic experience for me, personally, even though I was technically "on the clock" and not in full relaxation mode.

But I learned a lot in the countries we visited, including Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and France.  There were places I liked more than others.  For example, I was amazed by both the physical and architectural splendour of Prague, the Czech capital, a place I would certainly return to, if only to avail myself of a missed opportunity to visit the Franz Kafka Museum.  And who isn't blown away by the splendour of Paris visiting it for the first time?  After fifteen years in the business, I finally threw off the yoke of being the only French teacher who has never visited France.  Bucket list checked.

There were some smaller centres which were also amazing in their own ways.  Dresden, Germany comes to mind if for no other reason than that one must be impressed by how there is no evidence today that the city was essentially flattened by allied bombing during the Second World War.  Cool it was, as well, to have visited the city of Innsbruck, Austria who have twice hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976, when Denver, USA returned the bid originally awarded to them.

However there were a couple of things that all of these European cities have in common.  The first is the incidence of massive cathedrals erected over the past millennium.  Every city has one, and it made me reflect and marvel at the extent to which so much human ingenuity, architecture, creativity and labour have been invested in these colossal mausoleums built in homage to a god that probably doesn't even exist.

But there was something else that struck me.  Each and every city visited in the following order: Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, Prague, Regensburg, Munich, Innsbruck, Vaduz, Lucerne, Basel and Paris,  without fail had both higher order transit and public bicycle share.  Berlin, being the first city we visited, has an underground metro, electric trams and Light Rail Transit (LRT) running through its city centre.  The same held true in Prague where the system of public transit was so extensive that maps of it were difficult to understand!  The same tracks and overhead wires were also present in Munich and Lucerne.  And, we arrived in Paris to the following news:  because a pollution alert had been issued on the Friday, all public transit was declared free for the entire weekend.  Imagine that happening in a North American city, where pollution alerts are also a common thing.  If public transit had been declared free in my own city of Hamilton, I doubt it would make the slightest difference to our car-addicted culture.

And the phenomenon of public transit was not exclusive to the larger cities visited, it was everywhere to be found in the smaller centres of Dresden, Regensburg and Innsbruck.  LRT sharing the roads with cars, which seemed to move no more slowly than they do in Hamilton in spite of a conspicuous lack of one-way streets, right alongside racks full of publicly shared bicycles.

It made me feel that Europe is getting it right, far more so than we are in North America, where transit if too often perceived as something only the lower classes take, or something only begrudgingly used in large metropolises where car travel is something economically prohibitive or simply impossible as a function of congestion.

What is it about North American culture that is so hostile to public transit?  Is it a frontier mentality that constantly dictates that nature, right down to the very roadscape, is something to be conquered and tamed for individual convenience, ecological consequences be damned?  Is our sense of entitlement so ingrained that we won't even get out of our cars and onto shared busses or, heaven forbid, bicycles when to do so is so blatantly in our self-interest economically, environmentally and for the sake of one's individual health?  Perhaps it isn't so mysterious why rates of obesity are lower in France than Canada and the United States in spite of the former's stereotypically rich diet; in between baguettes and cheese, the French are running to and between the metro and trams.

In fairness to Hamilton, we seem to be progressing on the cycling front as evidenced by the recently rolled-out Social Bicycles (SoBi) sharing program.  But will we avail ourselves of the historic opportunity being presented to get the other half of the equation, higher order transit?  The European example shows that it can work in every type of city, large or small.

The trip to Europe was life-changing experience culturally and educationally.  But it has also increased my resolve to make a difference in the promotion of transit, bikes and busses right here at home.

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