One benefit of taking a vacation, especially going to a foreign country, is that it gives you a new perspective on where you live. I've been pretty busy since my return, but wanted to share a few observations resulting from my trip. I thought I'd get over these thoughts, but they persist. Perhaps the problem was that I shouldn't have waited nearly 10 years since our last, full-fledged vacation. Well the die is cast ...
Americans drive huge cars. I know: This just in. One explanation is that Americans pay relatively little for fuel, but there's something else at work here. I see individual drivers getting into and out of 5000 pound SUVs. I see them on the freeway - one person in a vehicle that might get 20 MPG (11 liters/100 KM) on the highway. As if this actually needs to be said, let me point out that one person commuting to work in a vehicle with 300+ horsepower, capable of towing a 6000 pound load, with four-wheel drive is just plain kooky. I wish I knew how this could be corrected, but I don't. If you haven't seen it yet, rent Who Killed the Electric Car to get a perspective on how PR, marketing and corporate influence can affect this sort of debate.
I saw many well-designed, fuel efficient vehicles in Europe and I only saw a handful of SUVs. There were so few SUV it was always a shock when I did see one. My conclusion is the reason more fuel-efficient vehicles are not available here is that U.S automakers do not know how to market them and, more importantly, they think U.S. consumers do not want to buy them. Every time I go out for a walk or drive to the airport and encounter these beasts on the road, I feel like I'm living in a strange dream. I just cannot accept that as a people we are that clueless and selfish.
The widespread availability of mass transit in most U.S. cities doesn't compare to what's available in Europe. One reason is that the U.S. is a big place except in some parts of the Eastern Seaboard, we don't have the overall population density that Europe does. Still, the long distance trains I took in France were quiet, fast, comfortable, and affordable. There is a proposal to create a TGV-style express train between San Francisco and L.A., but I wonder, do we have the political will to make it happen?
Deciding to walk my talk and lower the carbon load associated with moving my own carcass between home and the airport, I've been commuting to work two or three times a week using my Brompton folding bike and the Bay Area Rapit Transit, or BART. The difference between say, the Paris Metro and BART has mainly to due with the patrons. On my BART trips I am saddened to see so many riders acting aggressively, creating noise and squalor, making other patrons nervous. To be honest, many of these people seem to need help with psychological or drug problems.
Another big problem with BART is that the train itself is incredibly noisy, especially during some of the underground routes. I've read several on-line articles about why this is so, but the screeching sounds the train makes while taking turns, especially in underground tunnels and the Trans-Bay tube is unbearable. I've begun wearing ear plugs when I ride BART. I intend to continue my bicycle commutes at least two or three times a week, more if my schedule permits, but the fact remains that riding BART is decidedly unpleasant.
Something you just don't see much of on U.S. roads is the roundabout - a traffic control feature at intersections. There are two roundabouts in my neighborhood, but the entrance from each road has a stop sign: That kind of negates the whole point of letting the stream of traffic flow through the intersection. And speaking of flow, I've theorized that roundabouts have an interesting side effect - they train drivers to go with the flow, think ahead, and (most importantly) pay attention. A stop sign or stop light effectively breaks the flow, interrupts the driver's rhythm, and provides an opportunity for drivers to do dumb things like put on makeup, read the paper, send a text message, look for something in the bottom of their flight bag, or the countless other ways we become distracted and space out.
Coming back through U.S. Customs was a rude awakening, and I'm a U.S. citizen! I can only imagine what non-citizens must think. No one could argue that any country needs security at its borders, but being out of the U.S. and returning really clarified to me just how militarized the American people have let our society become. Of course we need security, but the TSA has decided we're all guilty until proven innocent. I saw toddlers break into tears after TSA employees wrenched their stuffed animals from them so they could be x-rayed. I see senior citizens being frisked. I myself was singled out for additional security and the TSA employee actually started yelling at me when I set off a metal detector and it too me more than three seconds to find the offending coin that was still in my pocket. We shouldn't be sacrificing the very freedoms upon which our country was based. What we often have at our airports is paranoia masquerading as security. If we let terrorists alter our commitment to basic freedoms and respect for human dignity, they will have won the battle.
While in France, I saw very little general aviation. In fact, I saw exactly six light aircraft flying in the air. Two were banner tow aircraft near a Mediterranean beach, one was a Robinson helicopter, one was a Diamond Katana or Eclipse, and the last looked to be a Piper Warrior. Americans are blessed with a tremendous GA community and we have much more opportunity to fly small aircraft. Think about that the next time you're complaining about the cost of maintenance or 100 low lead after a flight.