Daily Archives: July 20, 2007

Past and future

(Amsterdam, NL) With the benefit of a generous per diem from Corrin – but no relief from my duties as a columnist – your intrepid smart growth reporter has traveled to Holland and England this week to check out how the Dutch and British live, work, shop, and get around.

I’ve never been to Europe. As a social scientist with a professional interest in the social policies and social arrangements of industrialized nations, I have read plenty about it and felt a real need to see it myself. Now that I am here, I can see just how different the States are even from those countries most like us and from which many of us came.

As I write this, I am on a bus traveling from Amsterdam to Delft and the Hague for a day of sightseeing. I’m happy to report that one site I haven’t seen is a Big Box (check that: there is an IKEA just outside of Delft, next to the highway).

As I understand it, the preciousness of space in such a small nation, strong environmental sensibilities, and lower levels of emphasis on shopping and consumption as activities, conspire against the development of the vast retail complexes so common to the United States. As evidence, I offer a statistic I saw recently: the U.S. has approximately 20 square feet of retail space person, while European nations average approximately 2 square feet.

That’s a big difference, and it isn’t attributable to differences in income.

What I have seen in huge numbers are bikes. They are used by everyone: men in suits, older women in dresses, mothers and children. In the rain they open umbrellas; when the cell phone rings they answer it.

To accommodate these bikes there are bike lanes everywhere, special bike signals on stop lights, and a well-developed set of rules to coordinate the street cars, buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians found on many roads. It all works remarkably well, though you need to be careful not to steer into the street car tracks.

Just outside the central train station in the heart of the city is a three-tiered bike parking garage with thousands of bikes. Groups of dozens or hundreds of bikes are found outside offices. Bikes are parked along the length of every sidewalk.

This emphasis on bikes is related to the same space and environmental concerns that limit sprawl. Gas at 1.45 Euros a litre, which translates to approximately $7 or $8 a gallon, is the result of the same concerns. High gas taxes encourage modes of transportation other than cars, fund environmental initiatives, support compact social arrangements, and contribute to healthier children and adults.

It has become fashionable within the increasingly go it alone, our way or the highway, United States to refer to Europe as “old Europe” and to regard it as quaint, old-fashioned, and inefficient, as a tourist destination, a sort of non-plastic Disneyland.

I see it differently. Europe is a long way from perfect and the open spaces and individualism of the United States suit my sensibilities. At the same time, in being here, I think I have traveled into the future. With gas prices headed up as oil supplies begin what appears to be long term tightness and a reality-based policy on climate change inevitable at some point in our future, there are good reasons for us to think about how we might drive and shop and sprawl less.

Fortunately, we won’t need to look too hard or too far to figure out what to do. We don’t even have to look to Europe, really. We could just look to the Main Streets and neighborhoods our ancestors built when they first emigrated from the shores I am visiting.