Transportation is different in Europe. I mean that transportation in Europe is different than transportation in Canada (and North America) and also transportation within the three cities we have visited is different.
The proliferation of bicycles is one of the biggest differences. In Paris, Berlin, and especially Amsterdam many people ride bicycles. The people who ride bicycles are from all ages and walks of life. There are old men and women, children, business people, “fashion models”, delivery drivers, parents, and so on. This is transportation that is universal. The bicycles are very simple and gearing is usually internal to the rear hub. There are baskets, fenders, and wide seats. This is transportation and it is practical.
The use of the road and sidewalk space is also very different. Mostly (and here I emphasize mostly and not always) pedestrians have a place to walk that is free of vehicles. There is also usually a lane for bicycles (either sharing the sidewalk space or the roadway space–and sometimes it is hard to tell which is which … that leads to the “mostly” I mentioned above). Scooters and small motorcycles live in a gray area which mostly should be on the roads but sometimes wanders into the bicycle lanes and sometimes onto the sidewalk. Similarly, bicycles will occasionally wander onto the road or sidewalk. Mostly everybody stays where they should be … but not always. Yet it seems to work. The chaos I saw on our first day in Amsterdam was so far beyond what I could understand in terms of rules and sharing of the road that I was scared … and also impressed that the bodies from accidents were not filling the canals regularly. There is a pecking order here and the people know what it is and it works. The available space gets used and people share. Pedestrians occasionally walk on the roads and the car drivers are wary. A motorcycle will wander into the bicycle lane (or sidewalk, to park) and nobody dies.
There is also a surprising lack of horn honking (yes, it happens; just not as regularly as it would if everybody got angry when a bicycle, pedestrian, or motorcycle got out of its designated area). That aspect of travel amazes me. I like it a great deal. Compared to the news story that Charlottetown police are going to crack down on bicycles on the sidewalk (and the fact that people need to know the rules better to go biking and pedestrians are worried about injury), they would run out of ticket books as fast as they could write the tickets in any of the three cities we have visited.
Having said this, there are differences:
- In Berlin there were beautiful cars. I saw all of the Mercedes models and variants, including the supercar varieties. Similarly with Audi and BMW. We saw multiple Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Because we are fans of the British television show Top Gear it was fun to pick out the exotic cars and variants.
- In Paris there were beautiful motorcycles. When I saw multiple Buells on a walk from the Louvre I became suspicions that the motorcycle was the vehicle for Parisians. It was then I started noticing that the evenings were filled with the high-revving sounds of sport bikes and the streets were filled with crotch rockets of all shapes and sizes (and, yes, there were lots of scooters and other types of motorcycles). People in Paris were not driving the cruiser bikes. I saw more Ducatis than all of the Harley-style big bikes (Buell excepted).
- In Amsterdam the bicycle is king. It is black and it is basic and it is bicycle. There are variants on the theme where a bike may have a large box on the front with two wheels and the box steers the bicycle. There are bicycle carriers for children and all sorts of panniers. The most surprising thing I have seen so far are the adults that sit sideways across the carrier on the back of the bike while another pedals. I saw a very attractive and well-dressed woman take a couple of quick steps and slide sideways onto a moving bike that was being pedalled by (presumably) a similarly well-dressed and handsome man and the smiled and chatted as they drove. Rather than try to describe the variety, I encourage you to look through Amsterdam Bicycles (82 pictures of bicycles taken during 73 minutes on 9/12/06 in Amsterdam, Netherlands)–this is how it really is and it is very foreign to us foreigners. The expensive cars and motorcycles do not seem to be as abundant in Amsterdam; but I am new to the city so I may spot them later.
I have not said much about the scooters. They are of the traditional Vespa stylings for the most part. I have seen a few “real” Vespas and many made by Piaggio. There are a surprising number of three-wheeled scooters, if they are really scooters at this point, by Piaggio as well. BMW makes a very attractive scooter that is covered with a roll cage and looks very attractive as well. There are not many of the BMW scooters around and the vast majority are the Vespa style.
Up until now we have used only mass transportation or our legs. We are bus and train people with a brief stint on an airplane to get from Berlin to Paris. I daresay we will travel the canals some in Amsterdam because to do otherwise would be to miss out on one of the major features of the city. Having said this, I am very tempted to get a vehicle and wander into the melee that is everywhere. I do not think it wold be a car. There are just too few cars around here and they really have a disadvantage in the city (outside the city wold be fine). Maybe a bike or a motorcycle would be fun for a bit. Most people say that we must get a bike and see the sights. It would be a shame not to.