A few weeks ago, a couple friends and I spent two days exploring Amsterdam, a city full of fascinating juxtapositions – day life vs night life, canal district vs red light district, tourists vs natives. However, what stood out to me most about the city was the number of bikers cruising about, at full speed no less. In several areas of the city, I only saw bikers and walkers, no vehicles in sight. I of course love to ride bikes, both indoors and outdoors. But my fondness of cycling is not why the plethora of bikes in Amsterdam stuck out in my mind, nor was it their physical presence that mattered so much. It was what these bikes in this city represented – a replacement of cars, healthier lifestyles, a people oriented environment, an appreciation of nature, a normalization of an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation, and so much more.
Coming from a suburban/semi-rural area in the United States, I am very accustomed to cars and driving everywhere. Until my sustainable development class at uni this semester, I had never really thought about the design of the places I have lived and how they influence my decisions, but now I see that structures have huge sway and in a sense set limits to the choices we can make each day, at least in terms of how we go places. I hope American cities can follow the Dutch example of development, prioritizing bikers and walkers, which in turn benefits our health and our planet’s health (symbiotically feeding back into our own health).
Also impacting our decisions are social norms surrounding lifestyles, expectations and consumption, e.g. is it normal to bike or walk everywhere or is it normal to drive cars everywhere. A perfect example of the latter comes from my college back home, where certain students (who physically have the ability to walk) often drive their cars very short distances, such as the half mile routes from the senior apartments to main campus or main campus to Frank Dining Hall. This is seen as funny, as well as completely reasonable and acceptable, by most, as a portion of students do this regularly, but I am now realizing it is quite problematic. Driving cars, a carbon emitting activity, easily walkable distances is in a sense trivializing climate change. Perhaps this view seems overdramatic, but I think it is important to consider our everyday choices, not only to take personal responsibility within the framework we live, but also to think about how our choices affect those around us. We do not live in bubbles; people observe us and others, and what we do influences their preferences and choices whether they know and/or like it or not.
The long story short: I believe the U.S. would greatly benefit if we modeled cities in a more biker and walker friendly manner (cue engineers, city planners, urban designers, policy makers). On the individual level, we as citizens should pay more attention to our everyday choices, remembering that as humans on this Earth we do have an impact and our impact has a ripple effect amongst our peers (and their peers). If we normalize certain non carbon intensive behaviors, we would really help out our planet, and, ultimately, ourselves.