By RUSSELL SHORTO
Published: July 30, 2011
Russell Shorto is the author of “The Island at the Center of the World” and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is working on a book about Amsterdam.
AS an American who has been living here for several years, I am struck, every time I go home, by the way American cities remain manacled to the car. While Europe is dealing with congestion and greenhouse gas buildup by turning urban centers into pedestrian zones and finding innovative ways to combine driving with public transportation, many American cities are carving out more parking spaces. It’s all the more bewildering because America’s collapsing infrastructure would seem to cry out for new solutions.
Geography partly explains the difference: America is spread out, while European cities predate the car. But Boston and Philadelphia have old centers too, while the peripheral sprawl in London and Barcelona mirrors that of American cities.
More important, I think, is mind-set. Take bicycles. The advent of bike lanes in some American cities may seem like a big step, but merely marking a strip of the road for recreational cycling spectacularly misses the point. In Amsterdam, nearly everyone cycles, and cars, bikes and trams coexist in a complex flow, with dedicated bicycle lanes, traffic lights and parking garages. But this is thanks to a different way of thinking about transportation.
To give a small but telling example, pointed out to me by my friend Ruth Oldenziel, an expert on the history of technology at Eindhoven University, Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind. Likewise, every Dutch child has to pass a bicycle safety exam at school. The coexistence of different modes of travel is hard-wired into the culture.
This in turn relates to lots of other things — such as bread. How? Cyclists can’t carry six bags of groceries; bulk buying is almost nonexistent. Instead of shopping for a week, people stop at the market daily. So the need for processed loaves that will last for days is gone. A result: good bread.
There are also in the United States certain perceptions associated with both cycling and public transportation that are not the case here. In Holland, public buses aren’t considered last-resort forms of transportation. And cycling isn’t seen as eco-friendly exercise; it’s a way to get around. C.E.O.’s cycle to work, and kids cycle to school.
It’s true that public policy reinforces the egalitarianism. With mandatory lessons and other fees, getting a driver’s license costs more than $1,000. And taxi fares are kept deliberately high: a trip from the airport may cost $80, while a 20-minute bus ride sets you back about $3.50. But the egalitarianism — or maybe better said a preference for simplicity — is also rooted in the culture. A 17th-century French naval commander was shocked to see a Dutch captain sweeping out his own quarters. Likewise, I used to run into the mayor of Amsterdam at the supermarket, and he wasn’t engaged in a populist stunt (mayors aren’t elected here but are government appointees); he was shopping.
For American cities to think outside the car would seem to require a mental sea change. Then again, Americans, too, are practical, no-nonsense people. And Zef Hemel, the chief planner for the city of Amsterdam, reminded me that sea changes do happen. “Back in the 1960s, we were doing the same thing as America, making cities car-friendly,” he said. Funnily enough, it was an American, Jane Jacobs, who changed the minds of European urban designers. Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” got European planners to shift their focus from car-friendliness to overall livability.
When I noted that Manhattan’s bike lanes seem to be used more for recreation than transport — cyclists in Amsterdam are dressed in everything from jeans to cocktail dresses, while those in Manhattan often look like spandex cyborgs — Mr. Hemel told me to give it time. “Those are the pioneers,” he said. “You have to start somewhere.”
What he meant was, “You start with bike lanes” — that is, with the conviction that urban planning can bring about beneficial cultural changes. But that points up another mental difference: the willingness of Europeans to follow top-down social planning. America’s famed individualism breeds an often healthy distrust of the elite. I’m as quick as any other red-blooded American to bristle at European technocrats telling me how to live. (Try buying a light bulb or a magazine after 6 p.m. in Amsterdam, where the political elite have decreed that workers’ well-being requires that shops be open only during standard office hours, precisely when most people can’t shop.)
But while many Americans see their cars as an extension of their individual freedom, to some of us owning a car is a burden, and in a city a double burden. I find the recrafting of the city in order to lessen — or eliminate — the need for cars to be not just grudgingly acceptable, but, yes, an expansion of my individual freedom. So I say (in this case, at least): Go, social-planning technocrats! If only America’s cities could be so free.