You step aboard a bus, and a man or a woman at the wheel quietly greets you. On the subway or tram, you stand side-by-side people from all different backgrounds with unique, undoubtedly interesting stories. Teachers, students, young startup employees, developers, techies, grandmothers, grandfathers, kids, parents, immigrants, refugees, priests, athletes — almost anyone you can think of is there at some point. Then on the weekend, this incredible, fascinatingly simple yet revolutionary machinery zips you out of the city and into the countryside where you’re surrounded by some combination of rivers, streams, mountains, and forests.
You’re connected to it all — the city, nature, society — and it happens subconsciously. All those times you were riding public transport, walking to the bus stop, or riding your bike back home from the station, you were creating a home and forging a deeper connection with your surroundings.
“No Feasible Option”
Of course, this only happens if you’re fortunate enough to live in a place with robust public transport. The unfortunate reality is that most places in the world have relegated people to single occupancy vehicles — cars that isolate you from your surroundings so you can get from A to B as quickly as possible because you’re too busy and important to be distracted. Or, you’re trapped in the city with no feasible option to get out for a break.
The first two-thirds of my life relied on cars as my only means of transport. Even in college, I was stupid enough to live off campus and drive to most places. It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized, “Hey, riding this old bike is much less stressful and actually easier to get around in a dense place like a college campus.” I slowly moved away from cars in my early 20s when I lived in Chicago where I rode my bike everywhere. I only drove my car just to avoid parking tickets. There was the rare trip where I’d use it to get out of town and I remember vividly cursing and wailing on the steering wheel as I spent well over an hour just looking for a street parking spot.
By the time I moved to Downtown Cleveland, I just didn’t see the point in having one. So, I sold it. That was, what, eight years ago? By the end of my 20s, I had made a personal promise never to own one. I simply saw too many benefits in not owning a car that even if they weren’t major carbon emitters or killing millions of people, I still wouldn’t own one. My initial reasoning was purely self-interest. I just didn’t like the damn things and the stress, both financial and emotional, they brought me.
I was fortunate, privileged enough to make living car-free in a car-first city, state, and country work. I could afford to live downtown with a fancy, new Bus Rapid Transit station right outside my door. When I came back from Costa Rica, it was easy to find a place in the trendy neighborhood with plenty of buses and even a train station within a short walk. I could even ride my bike through the other trendy neighborhood next door and hop on the rare bike trail, pedaling for miles across the Cuyahoga River before coming across a car.
It worked for a while, but I missed nature. I’m not talking about a bike trail in a vastly urban area, as great of a thing as that truly is. I’m talking about being enveloped by hills, trees, and quiet, blue sky. To get to it, I needed a car. I don’t use the phrase “need a car” lightly. I’ve been told, “you need a car” as if it were a vital organ. So when I say “I needed a car” to get to nature, I mean it. There was just no other way unless I rode my bike for a good 60 to 80 miles, but cycling shoes don’t exactly lend themselves to a hiking trail. This frustration is one of the various reasons I felt the urge to give living in Europe a serious try.
A Journey Along The Rhine
Jump ahead almost two years and I’m riding on the train from Mainz back home to Düsseldorf. Locals know you don’t need to bring a laptop or book because you’re just going to be staring outside the whole time. The route is, at the risk of using overly flowery language, astounding. Tracing along the Rhine River, you watch it glisten as you pass a collection of those storybook German towns you expect to see in a postcard with rolling hills and the occasional castle in the backdrop.
I’ve ridden this route several times now. First to go on a multi-day hiking trip along the Rheinsteig, later to do an episode of The Germany Travel Show, and most recently, to cover a German wine tour for a friend. I can’t imagine I’ll ever get sick of it. To the contrary, I remember distinctly having the thought, “Really need to do some more hiking around here.”
Which fueled another thought. I’ve seen an absurd amount of Germany for someone with a full-time job and an average bank account. Yes, Europe’s more generous (or, let’s say, rational or fair) vacation policy has helped and doing The Germany Travel Show certainly sent me to a number of cities I’d never heard of. But both would be moot if not for Germany’s public transport system that allows me to walk outside my door, hop on the 721 bus to the Hauptbahnhof, and take the train out of town.
Thinking this over is when I realized that I’ve likely seen more of Germany in less than two years than my home state of Ohio in about 25 years. Granted I have a natural enthusiasm for travel (I’ve heard from both Costa Ricans and Germans that I’ve seen more of their respective countries while living there than they have their entire lives), but it’s not like I didn’t have that in the States. But I always knew that if I wanted to do a simple Saturday to Sunday overnight trip, it meant taking a Greyhound to a limited number of locations, or if I wanted to get some green, renting a car.
Appreciating The Green
This all left me wondering: Does the poor state of public transit infrastructure and subsequent lack of connectivity to parks (for anyone without a car) coincide with a lesser-appreciation for protecting green spaces? Does it make us less empathetic toward one another if we don’t share transport space regularly? I’m pretty sure it’s a scientific fact that humans turn into homicidal maniacs behind the wheel of a car.
Okay, that’s obviously hyperbole to make a point, but the fact that cars make us terrible people is a well-known cultural trope — and an accurate one at that. How many times do we see someone flipping the bird while driving in a movie? Someone punching the steering wheel while stuck in traffic? A taxi cab in New York City almost running over a pedestrian? Hell, it was even a gag in Elf — a Christmas movie for kids!
Lest I seem like I’m beating up on my home country with a grass is greener complex, I’m a firm believer that the National Parks idea presented over a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt remains one of the greatest political achievements for the long-term health of our planet. Politics aside, American National Parks are simply remarkable whether you’re talking about the alien landscapes in the North Dakota Badlands or the thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains. But people will only find them remarkable if they can get there with relative ease. We’ve demolished so much of our natural surroundings in the name of giving everyone a big house with a picket fence and a two car garage that it can be a real challenge to escape. Whereas in Germany, I can reach a country trail within a short bike ride or be on a quiet hiking trail within an hour.
I know what some of you might be thinking. I’ve heard it hundreds of times from car-owning Americans. “Europe is dense. The countries are smaller than us.” Yes, true, and I’m not saying Montana should have the equivalent of Swiss trains. But for a country that fancies itself “leader of the free world” and “best country on Earth,” I hear an awful lot of excuses for why we’re getting left in the dust. We seem to be willing to admit there’s a problem, but unwilling to do much about. I fear that continuing down this path will lead to an increasingly unhealthy country that’s even more divided (which would be saying something) and completely disconnected from natural spaces that are losing their protection.
About a month ago we were out celebrating my wife Melanie’s birthday. Drinks were consumed and we were on the U-Bahn between bars. We sit down along with Melanie’s younger cousin. There’s a guy next to me, sitting facing Melanie and her cousin. They’re busy playing with some flashing piece of junk toy, the kind one gets when celebrating a birthday. (It’s also definitely the kind of thing you think is much cooler a few drinks in.)
“Are you having a nice night?” Melanie’s cousin asked the guy. Luckily, he spoke pretty good English.
“Yes,” he smiled. “You?”
“Yeah, it’s her birthday.” And Melanie struck an “it’s my birthday!” pose.
“Happy birthday,” he said, keeping his smile.
“Where are you going?” her cousin asked.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Syria, but I live here now.”
Now, I don’t know if he was a refugee. “Are you a refugee?” seems like a rather rude question to ask a stranger, especially since, I imagine, it’s not something one wants to dwell on, being forced to flee their home country. Plus, they have the rise in anti-refugee sentiment to consider. He doesn’t know we’re friendly faces. That said, our state of North Rhine-Westphalia does have more refugees than any other state in Germany. Considering his age (I believe he said early 20s), it’s a reasonable assumption.
But whether he was a refugee or not isn’t entirely the point. The point is that it’s just one example of hundreds, possibly thousands of anecdotal experiences I’ve had over the years riding public transport. I have to believe that these kinds of experiences make people more empathetic of one another, whether it’s a Syrian on the U-Bahn or a miserable Browns fan on the trolley bus in Cleveland. Had this celebration been in the States, we would’ve almost certainly been in an Uber instead of the U-Bahn.
It’s a sad fact that much of the way in which the United States has been developed removes people from one another as well as their natural surroundings. Trains or bike paths along rivers or streams rarely exist. Instead, the dominant way to travel is on a wide, lifeless highway that looks the same in Ohio as it does in Georgia. You’re driving, so your eyes must remain firmly ahead of you (even if research shows far too many don’t follow that obvious rule), and you can’t appreciate what nature you might be surrounded by. Yes, there are plenty of what the blogging world might call “epic road trips” in the United States, but that’s hardly feasible for most beyond once a year — if they’re lucky. Plus there’s the exhaustion factor with driving that doesn’t come into play when you can doze on and off whilst riding a train and arrive at your destination fresh.
This Litte Rhine of Mine
One of the first things I noticed living in Düsseldorf is the easy access we have to the Rhine. The Rhine is a vastly important waterway in Europe, fed by its various tributaries in the Netherlands, cutting through western Germany and drawing the border with Frace along the Black Forest before plummeting into Switzerland and dumping into Lake Constance. (Recently, I even learned that a large portion of my ancestry most likely originated here in Western Germany along the river.)
I see the Rhine almost every day, high above from my office, on the footpaths at the adjacent park, sitting with a falafel wrap in the Altstadt, cycling up to charming Kaiserswerth, hiking the Rheinsteig, or on the train. The Rhine, I realize, makes me feel like I’m home with the region’s vast public transport system strengthening my connection to both the natural elements and the millions of other Germans, immigrants, and refugees drawn to them. We pass each other on the hiking trails, in the Altstadt, on the train to and fro. We’re not cognizant in the moment of how this shared space is bringing us together, but in retrospect, I’m fully aware that public transport has made Düsseldorf home and that I’m now as steadfast as ever about doing what I can to ensure future generations will be able to enjoy the Rhine just as much as I have.