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A Friday Diversion: Biking & Walking in the U.S. and Europe

bicycling-16-19-mph-very-vigorousThis is my Friday diversion from the usual things I write about. One of my pet peeves is the devotion to the automobile shown by the U.S., California and the Bay Area.

While I like to drive and I am not a biker, I do enjoy walking. I wish I could simply walk to my local grocery store or to the barber or dentist.  But in the Bay Area that is a dangerous activity.  A few months ago I decided to walk to the shopping center which is about a mile from my house.  To get there I had to cross three major streets, the exit and entrance ramps to an Interstate highway, and then navigate a busy parking lot.  There was a sidewalk for part of the trip, but nothing to help me cross the Interstate ramps which proved to be the most  frightening part of my walk. If I were older, disabled, or very young this would have probably been a fatal trip. I vowed never to try it again.

Here in the U.S. cars are both king and queen. Each year in San Francisco and elsewhere there are fights and protests by bikers over the almsot complete lack of accomodation for those who do not have or do not choose to have a car. Every city has built roads and designed parking for automobiles with little concern for other modes of getting around.

Walking in cities like Fremont, Sunnyvale, or Santa Clara is a dangerous and frightening activity. Cars race by, crossing lights are very short for very wide highways, there are no trees for shade. Everything is designed so that cars can speed by without any obstructions. Where there are walkways that go over highways, pedestrians are fenced in so that they will not throw garbage at cars or hurl themselves off. Even new bridge construction omits any walking or bicycling paths in order to save money.

Fremont may be the most walker unfriendly city in the Bay Area. Streets are very wide, mostly treeless, often have no sidewalks or just on one side, and the city planners freely admit the city was designed for the car. Houses are separated from shops and schools by highways and sometimes green belts (that unfortunately are hard to get to) and everyone from kids to seniors has to get around by car or bus.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOkbz4tm324[/youtube]

Perhaps we should take a few pages from the city planners in Europe. Whenever I go to Europe I am delighted to see how many people use bicycles or walk to shop, to go to school, to work and to play. City planners have given much more thought the needs of a variety of people. If you have been to Amsterdam, for example, you have for sure noticed the thousands of bicycles. Everyone has one. When they are not on their bikes they are walking to dinner and to the pub, as they do in many cities in France, England and elsewhere. Italy is filled with crazy drivers, but also has designed roads to accommodate bicycles and walkers.

This morning I stumbled across a great blog for bicyclists called Cyclelicious which has a video about bicycling in Amsterdam. The video here shows a bicycle ride across the city of Utrecht in The Netherlands. The road the biker follows was built by Napoleon when Holland was part of the French Empire in 1812. It stretches 320 miles from Paris to Amsterdam and, at least in Holland, has been redesigned over the years to accommodate bikes and cars safely without either seriously affecting the other.

Maybe someday we will find a way here to get walkers, bikers and drivers into harmony.

One Response to “A Friday Diversion: Biking & Walking in the U.S. and Europe”

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    Kevin
    Your comment about daring crossings and inconsiderate motorists applies to the cyclist environment as wellI am fortunate to be able to bike commute on occassion. About half of the 7 mile route is on a bike/walk trail that parallels a commuter train track. Recently the local police have put a radar speed monitor to remind cyclist the speed is 10 MPH. Why ride a bike is your are limited to the speed at whcih you can run?

    15 feet away, cars regularly drive 50+ on a 35 MPH thoroughfare where the drivers have no tolerance for cycles. If not for the bike trail, I would not consider commuting due to this last 3 mile stretch.

    Abundance is one frame to view things through. Greed and independence are two alternatives. American commuinity design has favored larger private spaces and smaller or non-existant public or shared spaces. Hence, the design of large lot residential tracks with no sense of community, no shared service model, no commercial/retail hub as an anchor for social interaction, or local economy.

    I heard Bill McDonough, reknowed architect & urban planner say the suburbs have made a prisoner of anyone below 16 and above ~80 (fill in end of driving age).. Absolutley no place to go with out a car for both age demographics.

    It will be the demand for more community based urban design, the thought leadership of peopel like Bill McDonough and the emerging values of the new generation that will determine how our human mobility within our communties evolve.

    Kevin, keep asking, keep observing. Be part of the change you wish to see.

    As for me, we moved back into the city last year, sold two big cars and got two 30+ MPG vehicles, reduced our commute from 25+ to less than 7, and can walk to three grocery stores, plenty of restaurtants, a concert park, movie theaters and open farmer’s markets, all on sidewalks with pedistrian friendly crossing on the thoroughfares.

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