Paul Andersen: If only Aspen could be like Europe
Bikes rule in Copenhagen. They are a defining element of the Danish culture.
I was there two weeks ago on a bike tour with my son, Tait, and we saw firsthand how the Europeans have relegated the car to secondary status and elevated the bike to a form of mobile elegance and utility. Could this be the future of American cities? How about Aspen?
Women in skirts, men in business suits, Rastafarians in dreadlocks, deliverymen in overalls, school kids in whatever — they all ride bikes through this teeming European city on designated bike routes that connect with a vast network of national bike trails.
Meanwhile, Aspen suffers car cancer. We are enslaved by the car, held hostage by the internal combustion engine. The city’s atmosphere is degraded with congestion and stress from the plague of too many damn cars!
Such a luxury crisis is ironic for Aspen with its athletic population and households that have three or four bikes for each resident. Aspen has WE-cycle rental bikes stationed all over town. And yet the ability to eliminate or greatly restrict cars remains elusive.
Why can’t Aspen be more like Europe and keep cars at bay in favor of bikes? Because of the pervasive fear of curtailing what many Americans regard as their freedom. Aspen is afraid of banning or even restricting cars from downtown because of the intimidation of an entrenched car culture.
In European cities cars are restricted by default because parking is nearly impossible on narrow, historic, cobblestone streets. Driving a car is so prohibitively problematic and expensive that bikes are the only logical, rational option.
But it’s not punitive. Europeans ride bikes because bicycles define a national sense of pride. Bicycles bring pleasure and a stoic sense of independence. The urban cyclists Tait and I rode with through Copenhagen and Amsterdam revealed an admirably resilient attitude by biking in all conditions. Nothing seems to get between them and their two-wheeled chariots.
In Europe you see beautiful young women on commuter bikes — a traditional variation of what we would call “townies.” There are legions of well-attired women who have perfected the cycling posture as a display of fashion and physique.
It’s the same with European men who sprint over bridges, along canals and through beautiful city squares that are adorned with statues and period architecture. There is grace in the way they ride, a manifestation of poise and elegance, an ethic of conservation and integrity. And bicycles provide an undeniable sense of fun.
These European bikes are not fancy, but rather utilitarian, with fenders and lights. They carry panniers or boxes affixed to racks. Europeans shop on their bikes, filling sacks with groceries and nonchalantly pedaling home with tonight’s dinner, a loaf of bread sticking out between heads of lettuce and bottles of wine.
Sometimes they ride two to a bike, the rider pedaling and the passenger sitting sidesaddle on the rear rack. Moms ride with one kid in front and another in back. The cyclist is not a secondary citizen subservient to the car, but a celebrated commuter who obeys traffic signals and gets around with efficient speed.
Most Europeans are excellent riders, able to weave through tricky intersections, chat with a friend who’s riding at their elbow, commute to and from work in natty office attire, usually with windswept hair. Some dare to text while riding.
Sure, some urban bike routes can be congested and the riding a bit frantic, but we never saw a bike wreck and never heard the harsh words of road rage. Instead, there was the tinkling of bells as people passed. There was the laughter of friends who rode together.
Aspen could be like this, at least in the summer. Aspen could rely not on cars or scooters or ear-shattering Harleys, but on quiet, efficient pedal power. Electric bikes that purr along effortlessly are popular in Europe and accounted for half the bikes we saw.
That means even old-timers can ride and enjoy themselves with the serene and youthful pleasure that comes from rolling through the open air and the quiet streets of smart, efficient communities.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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