Some thoughts on Europe’s resilience and how we could emulate it.

My wife and I just returned from a cruise up the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel, followed by a few days in Switzerland. The contrasts with home were remarkable. In many ways, Europeans are better positioned for energy transition and global warming – mainly because of decades of public policy and investment, but also because of certain habits and attitudes.

A freighter passes our ship, heading into a bend, in the Rhine Gorges area. Notice the vineyards on the slopes.

All the way up the Rhine, the water was amazingly clean, despite heavy commercial traffic, factories and power plants. People were swimming in it, fishing in it, camping beside it. At every stop, swans and ducks swam up to our ship to beg for bread.

The Rhine has been thoroughly cleaned up since the 1970s, when it was described as "the sewer of Europe." In the worst incident, a single toxic discharge killed all aquatic life from Basel down to the Rhine gorges.

Today, strict regulations on discharges keep the water quality high. It must have been very expensive to clean up, and costs to industry and shipping continue, but the result is beautiful: a major transportation corridor also provides a fishery and a source of clean water.

Passing a campground beside the Rhine.

The nearest American analog is the Ohio River – similar in length and volume of commercial traffic, and also the subject of a long cleanup campaign. The eight-state commission in charge of the cleanup has made great progress, but has more to do if the Ohio’s water quality is ever to equal the Rhine’s. Unfortunately, the commission voted in 2015 to relax some water quality standards.

Today there’s an annual Ohio River Swim. But is the stream really safe for swimming? The commission answers unequivocally,

"’Yes and no.’ Most every activity that humans engage in carries with it some level of health risk.."

Fecal coliform and E. Coli levels are monitored weekly from April through October. Fox affiliate WXIX in Cincinnati offers a cell phone app to check the latest readings.

The lakes in Lucerne and Zurich appeared even cleaner than the Rhine. Everywhere along the lake shores you could see bottom, with luxurious growths of lake weed for the swans and ducks to graze on. These lakes have the advantage of a strong current moving through them. Even so, I was amazed at their cleanliness, with towns and villages lining the shores.

Perhaps there was less turf grass and lawn fertilizer than at home. A few odd statistics suggest that total fertilizer use is less than in the states, possibly 33 per cent less. But this includes farms and grazing land, and the comparison may not be apples-to-apples.

Top: A swan feeds on lake weed in Lake Lucerne, paddling constantly to stay in place in the strong current. / Bottom: The paddle steamer City of Zurich backs away from the dock at Rapperswil. Launched in 1909, she carries passengers daily on Lake Zurich.

Air conditioning is unusual though not rare in northern Europe. It’s not really needed, except in the "unseasonable" summer heat waves which are becoming more common. One of the worst killed thousands in 2003. Still, there’s a cultural bias against using air conditioning. German visitors to the US return with tales of over-cooled rooms, feeling chilly and even catching cold from the ubiquitous AC.

We had an air conditioned cabin on our river ship, but often turned the AC off and opened the window. Near Zurich, we stayed in a very comfortable, modern hotel which was not air conditioned. The windows were big and openable, like every European hotel I can remember. There were two-layer drapes to keep out the sun when necessary. The walls were the usual thick masonry, probably built around a core of hollow "silo tile" like I’ve seen in construction elsewhere in Europe. Always assuming cool weather, the staff made up our bed with a sheet-enclosed quilt and no top sheet.

There’s a personal side to this paucity of air conditioning: most people are walking and bicycling on their errands. Shopping involves walking city streets, rather than the air conditioned corridors of an enclosed mall. People are used to being outdoors, and probably well acclimated to the normal outdoor weather of their region. It helps in warm weather, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Every European city we visited was alive with bicyclists, riding on dedicated bikeways segregated from pedestrians. In Amsterdam, the bike lanes were painted red- "to hide the bloodstains," critics said. There were massive bike parks at railway stations and ferry landings, as well as bike-share programs.

Bicycle traffic on the main street of a small town. The street is closed to autos from about 9AM to 5PM.

Amsterdam led the trend with an average of two bicycles per resident. The city literally could not exist without the bicycle. To organize the same population, industries and commerce along the lines of Atlanta or Orlando would take at least ten times as much land area, all paved.

I thought there were more bicycles than I’d seen on previous visits, but statistics show that bike usage is rising very gradually. Usage varies between countries, but biking and walking are much more popular than in North America. Not just for recreation, but for everyday commuting, shopping and errands.

A table compiled in 1998 shows the contrasts:

From an article on the Ibike.org website.

Maybe automobile culture is an Anglo thing. Anywhere in the U.S., Canada or Great Britain, 60 per cent or more of all trips were made by car, reaching 84 per cent in the U.S. Anywhere in continental Europe, only about 40 per cent- the rest were made by foot, bicycle or public transit.

Attitudes toward the bicycle in Great Britain resemble those in the states. A study by sociologists at Lancaster University concluded that "Many people barely recognize the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange."

Denmark and the Netherlands are ahead of the rest of Europe in bicycle usage, partly because they are so flat. A Danish joke about continental Denmark claims "If you stand on a box, you can see the whole country." Other continentals prefer walking over bicycling, but all use public transport heavily.

Most riders are dressed for work, shopping or going out- not exercise. You see women riding in high heels, but not many riders with helmets. Our Dutch said, "We consider bicycling as more or less like walking; you wouldn’t put on a helmet."

Top: Bicycle park in central Copenhagen. / Bottom: The bicycle my daughter needs.

Public transit is much better developed in Europe. Trains go virtually everywhere, and nearly every major city has a subway. In the small Zurich suburb of Kloten where we stayed, there were more tram lines around the city than we have bus routes in my home county.

We bought 24-hour transit passes for 13 francs at our hotel, which took us back and forth on commuter rail to Zurich, back and forth across the city on trams, and even onto the lake steamers going to nearby towns. The 24 hour period spanned enough of two days to cover nearly all our local travel.

Thick grass turf grew on either side of the rail line, as well as between the tracks, to minimize rattling. Nearly all the trains and trams we saw were electric – no engine noise or smoke.

We saw an exception one morning when boarding the commuter train. A beautiful old steam locomotive softly chugged into the next platform, pushing a caboose, with a blue-uniformed railway officer keeping watch in front. It must have been their mascot.

Think what would happen here in a liquid fuels crisis- an oil price spike, or a general shortage. A great deal of Europe’s rail/tram/subway net is electrified, and a lot of power is generated by hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar power plants. Sustainable or not, they would keep running in the near term, allowing a good proportion of the trains to keep operating. Service would be rationed, of course; a lot of local lines would be shut down, and the trains in service would be crowded.

But here you have a population that routinely walks or bikes, at least to the tram stop. People would have to travel further under their own power, maybe wait for a second train on the commuter line, but many could still keep their normal work schedules. Wealthier folks, now relying on automobiles, could join the masses on foot or commuter rail.

Contrast the U.S., where only 16 per cent of trips are made without an automobile. A liquid fuel crisis would put commuters and shoppers in deep trouble.

We can’t undo our decades of investment in streets, roads and highways and suddenly switch over to rail. But in most of the country, the rudiments of a public transit system already exist. My county, for instance, has a network of bus lines. Each bus has a rack for up to three bicycles, so you can carry your bike along. Most of us couldn’t commute to work via this system; the schedules and stops are too sparse. But if your schedule is flexible, you can get almost anywhere.

Think of Atlanta, with its spiffy commuter rail lines running North-South and East-West, linked across each quadrant by a bus network that goes everywhere. The legions of auto commuters ignore the bus network, but it’s there and could be utilized.

Americans aren’t condemned to long-distance driving for intercity transport, either. There are long-established regional bus lines that provide good service at a decent price. I think of the Van Galder and Badger lines in the upper Midwest; there must be similar carriers in other regions.

And a new outfit, Megabus, provides intercity service from Miami north into Maine and Canada, and as far west as San Antonio and Council Bluffs – not to mention some key cities in California and Nevada. They charge as little as $5 for a 300 mile ride, depending on how early you book.

I’ve ridden Megabus to and from Atlanta a few times. It reminds me of the old-time second class rail cars in Europe. Everyone climbs aboard with blankets, books and bags of snacks to amuse themselves along the way. The buses are comfortable, strongly air conditioned, and have low-voltage hookups for battery/computer/cell phone charging.

A Megabus at the curb in California. From the media photo gallery at us.megabus.com.

We who are aware of peak oil and global warming could help grow these existing systems by slightly changing our habits. Ridership is the bottom line, and it’s lack of ridership that discourages municipalities and private companies from investing in public transit.

If you can use your local bus service without too much inconvenience- if not for commuting, maybe for some errands or taking a bike to some new area to ride- you’ll provide a little support for public transit in your community. (As well as saving a bit of fuel and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.)

If this works for you, you can vote for public transit with your feet and your dollars. You don’t have to wait for a referendum, and you can vote as often as you like.

One factor that discourages people from riding the bus is class consciousness. Of course we don’t recognize class in America, except for middle class. So let me be even more crass for a moment, and call it race consciousness. You’ll be sitting on benches with people of various races – side by side with the working class, the looking-for-work class, the homeless and the carless.

Will you be safe? Most likely, if you stick to daylight hours and major streets, and don’t ride through a gang-war zone. And from time to time, you’ll meet some friendly and interesting people.

You can promote bicycling and walking the same way, by doing them. When everyone sees pedestrians and bicyclists on the streets, or is one, it’s easier to persuade local government to invest in bike paths and walkable neighborhoods.

Even auto and air conditioning usage can be reduced by a deliberate change in habits. If you’re old enough to remember the 1970s, you know all about this. Turn the thermostat up to 80 during the day, then cool the house down at night. Batch your errands so you don’t make individual car trips for each one. Consider car pooling. Remember the question displayed on the dashboard of every government vehicle in those days: "Is this trip necessary?"

These measures won’t bring the millennium, even if we all do them. But they can save a bit of gasoline, keep a bit of carbon dioxide out of the air, and help shape habits and consciousness in the direction our whole society needs to be going. Just a nudge in the right direction. And if a friend or neighbor likes what you’re doing and decides to follow suit, your influence doubles.

There are several versions of this bumper sticker. This one is available from Zazzle in Australia for AU $8.25 plus shipping – totaling about US $10 for my address.