last update: January 6th, 2008
IV: Observations while bicycle touring Europe


What does Europe have that prevents suburban sprawl?

Note:This article has evolved into a story if you are not interested in the story of my bicycle trip and only want the connection this trip has with smart growth click here.

A typical Utah man over twenty doesn't wake up one morning, with a woman in his bed forgetting how she got there. A Utah man wakes up one morning with a wife and two babies and can't believe he bought into the idea that loosing all independence at a young age is a good thing. Gordon B. Hinkley actually said,"any man over 25 who isn't married is a menace to society," in a speech my roommate attended at B.Y.U.

However, I was enjoying in my early twenties, not being yet hitched, so I thought I should enjoy it while it lasts. In this vain I decided to examine the options for traveling to Europe. Neither of my parents ever visited Europe, both vacation in downtown Salt Lake City, so they encouraged my to take one of the most safe alternatives which were either of the following:

I decided I wanted something a completely different. I wanted "culture shock," I wanted to interact with people who I both couldn't understand, and who couldn't understand me. Being an avid bicycle commuter and cycling fan I wanted the Tour de France. To see the French countryside like Lance Armstrong. I wanted to be the American expat for a while and meet some of the French who still loved me because my Grandpa fought to defend their homeland against the Nazis.

The final decision, however, didn't come from these lofty visions it came down to my inherent cheapness. I calculated that I would save a ton of money by riding my bike and camping as opposed to anything else.

I prepared for my adventure by reading several books on cycling in Europe. I learned how to pack lightly, how to stay warm, pitch a tent anywhere. I rehearsed both the assembly and disassembly my bicycle many times. I figured this would be a very important skill. My preparations were designed to allow me to conquer any challenge that came my way.

Finally the day came. I departed, leaving behind both my family and Mormon girl friend. I felt very bad to leave her, and I almost reconsidered. She wasn't in my life when I planned the trip ( However I never regretted the decision after I was on board the plane. It turned out to be a very wise choice. She dumped me while I was there for being such a menace lone-Euro-traveling-weirdo).

My first challenge came just an hour after landing in Paris. I had my pannier bags and bicycle boxed up and I needed to somehow put it together in a huge city full of bustle and nowhere to do serious bike work. I took the metro out of town and hauled my bike into the middle of the Gare de Lyon. Now it was time to put my training into action. I quickly pulled out my fork tool allen wrenches and sliced open my bike box with my utility knife. I worked very quickly because people were walking and dodging my operation. As I was tightening my fork and examining if it was true and center. I noticed that a crowd had formed around me. They had assumed that I was a street performer accomplishing some amazing feat of assembly in a record amount of time. I continued to connect my brake cables and attach my wheels. I was exceedingly fast, a blur of motion and precision. I quickly repacked my tools stuffed everything into my pannier bags attached the bags to my Cannondale and finally, I hear applause and clapping, "bravo, bravo.".

I didn't realize that I was a performer. Why are these people clapping? I was beat red. Had I realized better why they were applauding I could have collected money. However, being nascent to street life I wanted to get out and not have the attention of anyone.

I grabbed the box found a dumpster and peddled down the streets of Paris. I immediately accompanied by many other bicycle commuters and now I felt a wave of relief and excitement. The streets were cobblestone, the cars were moving slowly and I was moving very fast. The bright lights along the Seine light my pathway. Painters were packing up for the day, musicians were setting up for the night, couples were holding hands or sitting by the river eating picnics and drinking wine. This was indeed a very strange world for me, there were a thousand romantic little stories going on before my eyes...(I'll continue to add updates to this story as time permits, if you subscribe to you will received free updates and the rest of the story)

I killed my legs in order to become a pastry-powered machine on the bike.

My journey from Paris to Amsterdam took just 15 days. I killed my legs in my effort to become a pastry-powered machine on the bike. On some days I would stop up to four times for French pastries. Nearly every small town or village I entered, pastries were both my reward and my fuel. Au-chocolate cream puffs, eclairs were converted by means of the Krebs Cycle to ATP fuel. Baguettes avec fromage and cheap wine were in plenty and very cheap.

I was unstoppable and determined. Several times people called me Lance Armstrong. Upon my arrival, Armstrong was about to compete in his fourth Tour-de-France after three straight victories. Despite what you hear in the media the French love Lance and also love Americans. I think they especially love Americans who have the courage and determination to bike their country without being able to even speak French. This might not be the case for all the French in Paris, however the small-town French were gracious and hospitable, offering me more love and fellowship than I could have every imagined.

Smart Growth & Bicycle Touring Connection

Since this story is about smart growth I'm now going to demonstrate the relationship of smart growth to my amazing journey. Would my bike trip ever be possible in the United States? No, its nearly impossible to get out of any large city in the United States on dedicated bike paths. Its impossible to travel in the midst of city centers on dedicated bicycle pathways. Freeways are the method and mode of travel and as a result our interaction with each other is often only in cars. We wave to our neighbors from our car. We see them pull up into their garage then disappear behind the big door.

The amazing feat of biking from Paris to Amsterdam was the ease of traversing the landscape through both large and small cities. The speed and comfort in my journey is something that would totally unthinkable in the United States. There are bike paths everywhere in Europe. And as I biked closer to Amsterdam, the paths became wider, more frequent, and eventually turned into mini-highways. In Holland, the bike paths are an even more dominant feature of the landscape than motorways. The Dutch bike routes even offer more right-of-ways to bikers than to vehicular traffic. A common site is to see people in cars stuck in traffic while the biker traffic is clipping along at a good pace. The Dutch even provide special biker intersections. I found towns with virtually no cars and only bikers, like Brugge. These places are of course free of sprawl and fat people.

Dutch bike routes offer more right-of-ways to bikers than to vehicular traffic. This clearly takes people out of their cars and puts them on bicycles.

Urban Design in Europe Compared to the United States

While biking through the cities I was always puzzled by the small, wussy freeways. What they call a freeway in Europe looks more like a scenic by-way. Sure there are autobahns. But they are not ubiquitous, like the United States. This is because the Europeans have maintained their reliance on rail and they haven't rebuilt their cities for their cars like we have. (see entire story) Cities in Europe are dense, with very few parking lots. Instead they are full of ancient buildings, pedestrian and bike only streets. As well as coffee shops and street cafes packed in the day time with the 30-hour-per-week French "workers" smoking and drinking cafe late.

Biking along the scenic-by-ways there is a noticeable absence of diesel semi trucks. This is due to the fact that it is still mostly more efficient for Europe to haul freight by rail as opposed to truck. This is due to the fact that European gas prices are on average more than double what Americans pay. Europe also lacks the substantial freeway infrastructure required to accommodate 20 ton tractor trailer rigs.

Any American freight expert would scoff at the European way, because as we know in the United States hauling freight is so much more efficient by semi-truck than rail. However, the additional maintenance and infrastructure damage isn't calculated into that bill. The Minneapolis bridge collapse was caused by underestimating the extent our infrastructure is weakened by the incredible tonnage bridges are required to endure because of truck freight. I'm not condoning for us to become Holland, its probably good if we don't give away free drugs to heroin addicts. Policy makers, however, need to consider more factors, and the bigger picture when they are planning. Fewer semi trucks and less accommodation for vehicles makes for much nicer towns. Bike paths offer a community a very healthy means of travel and the ability to not depend on a car and gasoline.

I learned from Europe-- cars, freeways and cheap gas are all fine. Open space, bike paths and clean air, however, are more conducive to good health.

When the option to commute via bike paths is available; When people have to option to burn calories rather than gasoline: they will do so, even in America. The success of the Jordan River Parkway and the Provo River Parkways are both stellar examples: walkers, bikers and families all travel along the river enjoying the shade of the trees and the evaporation of the water on a hot summer day. The new bicycle bridge over I-80 will offer East Millcreek residents the option to easily bike to Sugar House and downtown Salt Lake City.

These are great models for what can be done. Salt Lake City and now Salt Lake County are beginning to catch on. "If you build it they will come" doesn't need to only apply to multi-million dollar freeways, it holds true as well for bike paths and paths are much less expensive that freeways

Smart Growth Part III
Bad taxes & smart growth policy>>


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