It was while I was living in Europe that, for the first time in my life, I used a bike, mass transit, or my own two feet as my primary transportation system. I was 35 when I moved to Germany, and was not in great shape (and I'm still not). I thought bike commuters were young hip males in perfect shape and who skate-boarded on the weekend. Advocates for bike commuting focus on young people, not overweight middle aged people like me -- and that's a shame, because they could bring many more people to their cause if they expanded their view of potential supporters. It's also a shame that it took me so long to find out how much I love getting around this way.
I have to note that I don't live entirely car-free -- my husband has a car (and a motorcycle). I'm not saying cars are unnecessary. But cars sure aren't as necessary as I have always told myself they were.
What does getting around primarily by bike, bus, train and my own two feet get me? Freedom . That's the best part. Freedom . I can't believe how tied down I was by a car: the maintenance costs, fuel costs, finding and paying insurance, and finding a parking place. Biking and walking have lowered my stress levels. Now, in contrast to when I drove every day, I get my heart rate up every day for all the right reasons, I work off stress, I have met many more people than I would have otherwise, I've discovered shops and sites I never would have discovered with a car, and it's kept me from gaining even more weight than I already have. I also love traveling by train: I love zoning out, just listing to music and watching the scenery go by, including the long lines of cars at traffic lights. The downside of trains is that you have to be there on time, but the train doesn't always do the same; but it's much less of a headache than finding a parking place, something that absolutely makes my blood boil.
What's stunning to me is people back in the USA who argue that their weather is much too harsh to walk or ride a bike. Hello, I lived this way in Germany . Do you have any idea what the weather is like here? And Germans bike or walk no matter what the weather. I've seen outdoor festivals take place in absolute downpours. I've seen old people happily biking on snowy roads. Europeans are a heartier, healthier people than we are in the USA -- they aren't afraid to get too hot or too cold.
Are there downsides to biking? Sure: Drivers who don't understand that bikes have equal rights on the roads (though much more rare in Germany than in the USA). Riding in the rain (AWFUL). Having to bring business clothes with me rather than wear them, then change into them at work. The helmet, which makes me look like an ugly mushroom and ruins any chance of fixing my hair before I leave (but I've decided I really like my head and would like to keep it). But so far, it doesn't begin to match the headaches my car use gave me.
I've also now realized that, for the most part, advocacy groups in the USA do a very poor job of promoting mass transit and bikes to the general public, and agencies in the USA do a very poor job of making mass transit easy to use. For instance, bus stops in the USA rarely have information other than what time a particular bus stops there. By contrast, here in Germany, at most every bus stop in Bonn, there's a map to help you figure out your entire trip right from just that bus stop. I navigated all around Berlin without a transit map, because the signage was so great. I've used mass transit in Madrid, Barcelona, Geneva, Paris and Prague -- and I've always been thankful I wasn't driving in those cities!
I would love to see many more places in the USA adopt the mass transit and bike commuter practices of Europe, particularly those of Germany and the Netherlands. I want more people to get to experience this freedom and flexibility, help counter the many negative immediate and long-term effects of too many cars on the road, and help more people leave the slavery of oil dependency. Car drivers should embrace such campaigns, as they reduce the number of cars on the road and in the parking lots. Everybody wins.
I'm very interested in promoting mass transit and other alternatives to cars in the USA. It's not easy to do from Europe, and it's not easy to do when you are my age.
Also see the CYCLISTS' BILL OF RIGHTS
The personal opinions expressed on this page are solely the opinion of Ms. Cravens, unless otherwise noted.
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