Lessons from Europe


Example of Bike Parking in Amsterdam

Friday, July 12, 2013

Today we began class with presentations of our findings from the group walkability project from yesterday. As George described in the previous blog post, each group designed a tool to measure walkability and rate streets, after which we went into Riva San Vitale and evaluated two streets.

As groups presented this morning, we began to see similarities concerning what worked well, as well as what didn’t. In many cases, we agreed on important features that made streets walkable, drawing on yesterday’s lecture. Safety and aesthetics, as well as perceived liveliness of the area, were important characteristics. Some groups found that leaving certain measurements up to subjective judgment was a poor idea, as in these categories we had more variation. However, having multiple students survey each street and later averaging the results helped generate a consensus.

Groups agreed that streets in Riva are generally quite attractive. It has a small-town, European feel, with several old churches, stone archways, and of course stunning mountain views to both the east and west. However, one issue that groups agreed on was that narrow streets decreased the walkability; in one section of a two way street, there is a sharp curve with only room for one vehicle between the old buildings. The historic European construction causes these sorts of issues, but we seemed to agree that the aesthetics made it worth it, and safety in these areas could be addressed with a mirror or additional signage.

In the afternoon, we discussed something that I have been very excited to learn more about: public transportation. We compared the United States and Europe, looking at the different demographic makeups of public transit users, contrasting histories of public transit, and cultural obstacles or advantages that have led to differing development of such systems.

From countless examples, we can see that Europe excels in public transportation while the United States lags. As we saw in Basel last week, multi-modal systems are popular, with countless streetcars, cyclists, and pedestrians. Charts and data demonstrated that public transportation in Europe is a more universal system; people of all demographics, no matter wealth, gender, etc., use such systems to a relatively high degree, whereas in the United States, those in lower income brackets more often use our public transit systems. We discussed the stigmatization of public transport in the United States, as well as the fact that the exceptionally low density and ideals of individualism in the US probably contribute to the low degree of public transportation.

We also watched a film called Taken for a Ride, which discussed the role of General Motors in the demise of United States public transportation after World War II. While the film likely exaggerated in some places, I do believe that it was in GM’s interest to have streetcar lines shut down once they bought them, paving the way for GM buses and GM automobiles, which soon found their places on ever-increasing networks of federally-funded interstate highways. As we have discussed in the energy, water, and now transport modules of the class, it is critical that we consider the long-term impacts of our choices as consumers of food, goods, and automobiles!

Guest Contributor:  Wil Fisher

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