Auto Manifesto

May 8, 2008

Detroit vs. Denmark

Last Sunday I flew to Detroit ahead of several days of meetings. While waiting for my rental car I was reading the current issue of Bicycling Magazine and was blown away by the contrast.

Here I was an automotive engineer in Detroit waiting for a rental car. What could be more mobile than that? But I was transfixed on the article about Denmark and the use of bicycles there for transportation, and how well it worked.

Meanwhile, after half an hour of waiting in line (they were understaffed) I got the car. After pulling out of the lot I followed signs for I-94. Within a few blocks I almost stopped the car because it looked like the road had ended. Upon further inspection, the road was just a gigantic series of potholes and patches. It looked like a test track for evaluating durability.

The car I had was a newly redesigned compact from a domestic nameplate and it rode the bumps surprisingly well. But once out on smooth highway it was numb, as if the front tires were underinflated (they weren’t). Why the manufacturer bothered to redesign it I’ll never know. Let’s call this model Mediocrity 2.0 (M2.0).

So I’m motoring along just fine in Michigan and I’m thinking, as a visitor to the area, I didn’t know of a practical way I could bike from Detroit to Ann Arbor. But according to the article about Denmark, people there routinely bike the same distances, and their quality of life is supposedly higher than here in the US.

There is bicycling hope in the States though. The article mentioned a number of US cities that either are already bicycle friendly or are becoming more bicycle friendly such as Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Colorado, Washington DC (yes!), and so on.

I must say I was impressed with the anonymous government agency (begins with the letters E.P.A.) bike room in Ann Arbor where employees store their transportation. It was no more than a parking space but it did indeed hold a dozen bikes, just like the stats from Bicycling Magazine.

My whole point? The M2.0 is a product of its environment. Developed by a company based in Detroit, it’s reasonably well suited to cushioning the bumps of pockmarked roads and getting people from A to B in about as dull and numb a manner as possible. On the other hand, the environment in Denmark has enabled bicycle use, and its use has become an integral part of daily life there.

We need enablers. If the American landscape were more bicycle friendly, more people would ride instead of drive, not just for recreational purposes but also for transportation. It’s refreshing to see some of the changes occurring here, and I hope it’s a trend that continues.

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