Thursday, October 30, 2008

on the possibilities of Bonn

I am in Europe, attending an international migration conference in Bonn, once the capital of West Germany. I arrived at Frankfurt airport at noon yesterday, took a high speed train from the airport to Bonn (292 km/h average speed!) and then hopped on the subway to my hotel. I walked this morning from my hotel along the Rhine river to the conference centre. There are 2 pathways alongside the river, one for foot traffic, one for bicycles, both heavily used. Ships lumbered alongside, bringing goods up and downstream between Germany's inland industrial core and the ocean ports in Holland.

Whenever I am in Europe I am reminded of what is possible in terms of sustainable urban lifestyles. In Bonn, as in many other Europeans cities I have visited or lived in, public transportation is clean, affordable, efficient, and takes you most places you want to go at most hours of the day. Bicycle commuting is commonplace, and bicycle lanes are found everywhere, used by people of all ages. The city core is closed to private vehicle traffic, and the streets are filled with pedestrians well into the night: the inner city is as much a place to socialize as it is to work. On each block, and in front of every institutional and apartment building are large colour-coded plastic bins on wheels that are used to sort wastes: metals, plastics, paper, compost and so forth. They are emptied more frequently than the once-weekly schedule typical of North American cities.

Contrast this with Ottawa, a city that is often cited as one of Canada's more sustainable cities. For a Tuesday night flight, the only way to get to the airport is an expensive taxi ride or private car. The city bus service is good by Canadian standards, but pathetic in comparison to Bonn, a city 1/4 the size of Ottawa. In Ottawa, if you work downtown it is generally possible to get there and back at rush hour from most parts of the city, but after 7pm bus service drops off sharply. If you don't work downtown, you are almost certainly driving to work, and most main arteries are seriously clogged at rush hour. I ride a bicycle to work most of the year, and invariably have a close call with road traffic each week; bike lanes are few in the city core, and car drivers tend to be indifferent to the safety of cyclists. Bicycle commuting in Ottawa is still a relatively rare phenomenon. We do have a good many recreational cycling paths, but going to and from work still requires a willingness to put your safety at risk.

Much of Centretown Ottawa is an unfriendly series of windy, dark canyons walled in by ugly 1960s office towers. Most of the people who work there come in from elsewhere and flee the area at 5 o'clock. There is the lively, if overly touristy Byward Market district, but it is geographically distinct from that part of Centretown where people go to work, and as always, the ubiquitous private vehicle traffic spoils the place. Don't get me wrong; I like Ottawa very much, and by North American standards it does have a high quality of urban life. But I think the time has come to stop comparing our quality of life to North American standards, which are generally pretty low. We need to look beyond what we have, and look at what is yet still possible. Yes, Bonn does have its rush-hour traffic, but commuting by trains, buses and bikes is what the majority of the population does, and they do so without incovenience or risk to personal safety. There is a word in German with no direct equivalent, gemütlich, which loosely refers to a sense of comfort and well-being. Monday to Friday 9-5 life in Bonn is more gemütlich than it is in Ottawa, and this is something we should strive for.


TomTrottier said...

To solve your bike fears, I suggest a CanBike II course from the Envirocentre at City Hall -

Robert McLeman said...

Thanks for flagging these, Tom, they are a great idea.