What I learned in Europe

My trip to Europe has increased my resolve to make a difference in the promotion of transit, bikes and busses right here at home.

By Rich Gelder
Published March 25, 2015

I recently had the good fortune to have taken part in a school trip to Europe. We visited six countries in ten 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.

Velib' bike share station in Paris (RTH file photo)
Velib' bike share station in Paris (RTH file photo)

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, which has 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.

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 shared 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 Hamilton Bike Share 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.

My trip to Europe was a 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.

First published on Richard Gelder's website.

Rich Gelder is an educator who lives in Dundas with his partner, Catherine, and two sons, Liam and Jamie. He commutes by bicycle and cares passionately about bicycles, track and field and all things Hamilton.


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By why (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 08:26:45

I don't get it. Why is my response being denied because of words that "look like spam". How am I supposed to know which ones are and which aren't? I've tried editing it four times now, I give up.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 09:46:13

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.

No clue what this has to do with the article.

Regardless, great piece otherwise. It really is striking how we've allowed our cities to become parking lots at the expense of business, safety, quality of life, health etc.....

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By rgelder (registered) - website | Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:28:43 in reply to Comment 110501

Your point is well-taken. But sometimes I just can't resist. ; )

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:57:54 in reply to Comment 110503

Lol. Gotcha

Would love to see more pics if you have any from the trip.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 09:52:07

Thanks for writing this. There is something about travel that widens perspectives and can change a person.

When I was young I loved my car and loved to drive fast (shocking!). My personal change first began in 2004 when Katrina wiped out gulf production and caused our first spike to $1.40. A young employee ain't got money for that. So I bought a Trek and started cycling once or twice a week. Suddenly I saw what life was like on the other side of the windshield. And that pretty much pre-dated any of the cycling infrastructure that exists now. It was hostile and shocking at first.

Fast forward to 2008. My employer send me overseas for the first time. Took some personal leave too, and explored on my own time as well. When a buddy and I got back from our UK/Holland/Belgium tour, I could not sell my car fast enough. Took trains to/from airports, rented a bike for two weeks and got around as naturally as breathing. That life was such a relaxing (and inexpensive) contrast to life back home, I resolved to adopt that lifestyle back home.

Since those first early days of "HOOOOONNNNNKKKKK ... GET ON THE SIDEWALK [EXPLETIVE]!", there has been an outright explosion of cycling infrastructure and even though we are 30 years behind some places, it is well under way. Pearson Airport FINALLY has a train. I had to apologize more than once on behalf of Toronto, when a confused and bewildered European gets off a plane at pearson and has no idea where to catch a bus or how crappy transit actually was.

We will get there. Ride safely, obey the law, but don't apologize when defective and incomplete infrastructure forces you into traffic. We are all citizens and deserve safe passage within our cities.

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 17:35:53

What person wouldn't prefer to hear the light hum of a tram/LRT that reminds them of their trip to Europe, over the sound and smell of a diesel bus engine that reminds them of industry and reinforces the rough image Hamilton is trying to shed?

If the city is at all interested in trying to recruit business and young professionals to this city, LRT would be a huge draw.

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By jobs (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2015 at 12:34:29 in reply to Comment 110541

An even bigger draw would be decent paying jobs. The kind of jobs found in Toronto, the kind of jobs people are commuting hours to get to. Sadly it ain't happening soon.

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By kevcom2 (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2015 at 18:35:36

Great post. I'm currently studying in Lyon, France and can confirm that Europe "gets it" with respect to higher order transit and public bike sharing. I've travelled extensively around France while on my exchange and have marveled that even the smaller urban areas privilege public transit over private automobiles.

In Lyon, there is a multi-modal system of 4 subway lights, two funiculars, 4 tram lines, several higher-order trolleybus lines, and regular diesel busses which serve local routes. A bike sharing system of over 4000 thousand bikes has been operational in the city since 2007. It was rated the best system in France, and is in fact so good that I don't even have a monthly membership for the public transit system. I use Velo'v, as it's known, every single day to commute to school, to run errands, and to return home from late evenings on the town.

If Hamilton thought more like Lyon, we would have a truly amazing city. Let's hope that SoBi will be the catalyst we need to move forward with bike infrastructure expansion and a greater adoption of healthy and sustainable living.

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By Hamilton is just like Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2015 at 12:39:33 in reply to Comment 110559

If Hamilton were more like Lyon or any other European city then we wouldn't have miles and miles of single family homes. You know those homes that the vast majority want. Just look at the hardships they are willing to endure to live like that. But hey every body has a choice. If you want to live in a city just like Lyon then I believe that immigrating to France is pretty easy. Millions of people have immigrated to Canada just for the chance to someday buy their very own house something that is virtually impossible for a working class family in Europe. But hey we all have choices to make.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted March 27, 2015 at 13:44:06 in reply to Comment 110625

So you're telling me, in a country the size of Canada - that there is not enough room for both well built urban form, and spacious suburban form? That one style is mandatory to the exclusion of all else? What are you saying? In both Europe and here there is urban, suburban, and rural living. We just happen to have a ton more forest and farm in between our towns and cities. Does indeed make it cheaper to own more land here. You can have your house. Nobody is taking that away from you. Could people that want the city centers to be well-built pleasant areas have something too?

Here's where I repeat a comment I just made elsewhere:

Funny whenever I see a comment "well why don't you just move to Netherlands". Yeah, as though it was that simple, or desirable as a proud Canadian who loves their home and native land.

That's narcissist thinking right there. It's not enough to have the whole road. You need the whole country too.

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2015-03-27 13:55:41

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2015 at 12:16:39

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By rgelder (registered) - website | Posted March 27, 2015 at 20:57:56 in reply to Comment 110593

Well, I won't go so far as to call your criticism shoddy but, as other commenters have pointed out, your own analysis seems to have failed to make the elementary distinction as between intercity and intracity transit.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted March 26, 2015 at 13:35:40 in reply to Comment 110593

Europe has a much higher population density than Canada

Just gonna leave this here. A national average people per km2 is not useful for analysis of population centers.

Your perspective is more useful when discussing high speed rail or bicycle highways criss-crossing the country.

Evolution inside of core urban areas is much more similar than you'll ever admit, even in the face of more localized and appropriate data, with Europe and N.America sharing similar successes and problems, at those urban boundaries.

Due to how industrialization evolved, by the 20th century European and many American cities had developed very similar densities, with even the extreme examples being very similar - Paris being a behemoth in Europe, and New York being a behemoth in America. Here's some lists for a quick glance.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted March 29, 2015 at 21:14:14

Although not every country in Europe is exactly the same my 2 cents would be that they do a few things very differently than us which caused their urban development to evolve in a completely direction than us and that makes most of the difference.

Many European cities never completely bought into the argument that, everyone should have complete access to all parts of the city and area by private automobile at all times. They realized that to have that mentality would force a complete change, visually and functionally in what they recognized as a city or urban area.

There society is older so its not as opposed to keeping old things around and less likely to force the new on everything and everyone, right now, A.S.A.P., immediately and before it goes out of style! They (Europeans) seem to be as a population, are just a little more willing than us, to wait until any new technology (especially transportation technology) can be adapted into the existing environment rather than, forcing the environment (including the built environment) to be changed wholesale to adapt to the new technology. The destruction of WW2 forced a good chunk of Eastern, Central and Western Europe to rebuild major cities from the ground up, they seemed to understand just because a technology is older doesn't mean its not useful. This rebuild allowed them to completely rethink how they wanted their cities to function and how they could actually do it, cheaply.

When you actually have people starving, really starving, like a lot of Europeans were at the end of WW2, its a lot easier to be sympathetic to the less fortunate in society. The population realizes to a much greater degree that, being poor may not actually be that person's fault and other things like changes in economies, technologies or a major war can just as easily force you to loose a job or several jobs, as well as destroy entire industries that may have existed for a long time. Thus, they do not mind as a group compared to us although, just like us, they do not like taxes, they are much more willing to pay for things like social services, healthcare and public transit.

Yes many European cities have some great public transit rail systems as well as their share of some industry wide spectacular public transit failures, the pre metro movement in Europe of the 60's70's and early 80's is great example of one big, massive industry wide oops. Europe has had great success with public transit as well as some massive mistakes but, throughout the latter half of the 20th and into the 21st century, they are willing to pay much more in taxes for public transit than we do. Many of the Regional rail Lines and "S Bahn's" (Like our GO system but much more) and the inter-city rail lines, including most of the high speed rail lines do not make money or just break even. Their meter of success is not always based on whether a system is completely profitable. They are much more leaned towards the access side than we are, in the old transportation access vs. ridership debate. They (Europeans) spend depending on the city, region and country anywhere from 2-6 times what we pay for public transit and regional rail or intercity rail systems. They are much more willing to force freight carriers to put passengers first (causing freight to cost more) where freight and passenger service use the same lines. To make up for that, if you are shipping anything more than 200 miles (320km)or more, it has to be moved by freight train not truck. Special (more expensive goods for the end user or customer) trucks with special licenses are allowed as the alternative to this. This removes a much greater percentage of heavy trucks from their highways compared to ours. So they don't have as much pressure as we do, to keep widening them as much. They do have overall higher population densities compared to us but its not as important as most think in generating revenue. Its been proven for a long time, regardless of the population density greater frequency is much more important when generating revenue for rail and transit systems. Yes, they have better transit but, they do pay more than we do, some places a lot more than we do. Yet for the most part they put up with it and get very upset when the government claws back services to save money.

Gas taxes also are much higher than ours thus forcing more long distance surface trips to the train or in some cases the airplane by design. They pay more than us for many things and they seem to like it for the most part, go figure. Yet the Germans, with some areas (due to extra regional gas taxes) having the some of most expensive gas in Europe period, they own almost as many cars per person as we do. They just are more selective about how and when they drive.

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By Hamilton is just like Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2015 at 22:48:28 in reply to Comment 110692

europe is full of old, very old, buildings. Some of the apartments from years ago are incredibly small. At least by our standards. When you think that the size of the average new house in North America has doubled in the last 50 years and the size of what was being built then was already much bigger than what existed there. One of the reasons their density is so much higher than ours. One of the reasons the old homes in the heart of Hamilton are not desirable any more is because they are to small for people who have good jobs and good money. They buy 3 or 4,000 square foot homes in Ancaster or Dundas or Stoney Creek or even on the mountain. One of reasons there are so many poor in core and north end of the city. It's what they can afford.

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By Hamilton is just like Hamilton (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2015 at 22:53:36

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