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Op-ed

Peter Jensen: Fulfilling the dream of a car-free life | COMMENTARY

My wife and I are recently returned from a vacation in Europe. I’ve always wanted to say that; we are not regular world travelers. Our passports are notably pristine, as in absent any stamps or stickers required to enter a foreign country. But we scrimped and saved and, along with friends, joined a COVID-delayed group tour from the Netherlands to Switzerland this spring, a portion of it by boat motoring up the Rhine River. I could regale you with stories about castles in the cliffs and how every town and city seems to have a centuries-old gothic cathedral damaged during World War II. Or share tales about the serene pleasure of sidewalk cafe dining. Perhaps even a few words about how so many folks we met — whether Dutch, German, French or Swiss — spoke several languages, making a monoglot American feel like he was raised in a cave.

I could, but I won’t. I want to tell you about something far more revelatory.

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From the moment we first arrived in Amsterdam to the day our flight took off from Zurich, my spouse and I learned the joys of living without complete dependence on the automobile. It was not an easy lesson. I kept looking for cabs or ride-share options like Uber, as decades of living in the Baltimore area had conditioned us into seeing public transportation as inherently unreliable. Not in a snobby way. We can ride a bus with the best of them. But how often in Charm City have we been left standing at the curb uncertain when (or if) the next Maryland Transit Administration or even Charm City Circulator bus might show up or even be clean and safe? Try carrying bags on the subway or light rail — that’s a lot to lug around stations and platforms, escalators and elevators (when they’re working). Better to play it safe and reserve public transportation for days when you’re not in a rush.

Except in the Rhine Valley, that is. What we quickly learned is that driving is for slowpokes. The first few days we were so disbelieving of this we staged races with other couples. We’d order an Uber. They’d take public transportation not knowing exactly where to make connections or even how to make change. Not only did they beat us to every destination from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to Old Town in Basel, Switzerland, but it was never even close. Cities used a combination of electric trams and articulated buses that rarely ran more than 5 or 8 minutes apart. They went everywhere. And fares? Some required a daily fare card costing less than $4 for unlimited service on all conveyances (which is less than two swipes on the New York subway). In Basel, it was all free, a benefit to anyone staying in a hotel, bed-and-breakfast or, as in our case, a short-term rental apartment. And intercity train travel? There was no better way to the airport. Traffic was a nightmare with cars given a low priority. Bicyclists had it better. In Amsterdam, dedicated bike lanes handled a far higher volume of traffic than the adjacent streets did cars.

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In the United States, the two highest regarded transit networks belong to New York and San Francisco. We have traveled both. They pale in comparison to what a relatively small city like Basel — where the entire metro area is roughly the size of Baltimore proper — can offer, not only in convenience and quality but in courtesy with helpful guides posted at major transfer points. Transit isn’t regarded as second-tier transportation. This is not the affordable alternative for the working class. It’s simply the best way to get around with the added benefit of egalitarianism. There is no first class section on the tram or bus. Nor coach or even “premium coach.” We are all in this together and there’s something to be said for that. It fosters decorum and positive social interaction. Governments simply committed to public transportation and made big investments.

As the U.S. and the rest of the world enter a summer of high gasoline prices, the product of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, and increased demand — a season that is also likely to feature the droughts, wildfires, harsher weather and sea level rise brought by climate change that burning fossil fuels has wrought — wouldn’t it be wise to do something about the demand for gasoline and invest in the most energy efficient means of conveyance possible? Forget the gimmicky gas tax holidays or tapping the U.S. oil reserve or, worst of all, the “drill, baby, drill” mentality that would happily destroy the planet tomorrow for a few pennies off the pump today. Wouldn’t you rather be able to roll out of bed in the morning, as we did, shuffle over to the nearby transit stop and let someone else drive you and your neighbors to work or school or play without thinking twice (or even once) about the price of gasoline?

Now that sounds like a vacation.

Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at pejensen@baltsun.com.


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