Martine and Larry Ware live in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, in a quaint little town called Leysin. Known a century ago for a thriving industry of tuberculosis sanitariums, the Alps-blessed town is now a paradise for skiers and mountaineers.
The Wares are paying what amounts in Swiss francs to $8 a gallon for gasoline. They pay that much in Germany and France, too. In Italy, Martine says, even more.
We all went to dinner recently. They were visiting their daughter in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t long before the topics of high gas prices and the sucking U.S. economy came up.
In contrast to most of us Americans, who whine, bitch and moan relentlessly about gas prices, the Wares seem to know how to live with the challenge. Hey, they’re European. They come from a long tradition of shortages, tight living quarters and minimal personal space. Gasoline inevitably climbing to $10 a gallon is a pain, all right. But their lives aren’t caving in over it.
They—they specifically, and Europeans generally—are a light-year ahead of us in understanding shortages and in taking measures to conserve what they have.
To wit: The Wares ride motorcycles, scooters and bicycles around town. They live near where they work. They drive a small car and take the train for longer commutes. For bigger trips—from Geneva to Paris, let’s say—there’s the TRV, a high-speed train that will do the trip in just over three hours. It costs a bit more than the cheapest commuter airline flight and a little less than Air France.
Driving home that night from the restaurant, Larry mumbled, “Oh, my God,” every time we saw one of those 4x4, power-stroke pickup trucks barreling down the road. “How do they fill those with gas,” he asked. “And where do you park the damned things?”
Larry would have a legitimate worry about squeezing a Hummer into a space outside his neighborhood pharmacy, but we don’t worry about that in America. We only started caring when gas jumped over $3 a gallon. Like a lot of people, I’m hoping for the day when a gallon goes past $5—that will finally test the bonds of our love affair with cars and more highways.
Way out here in the West, we live on an endless frontier. The land and everything about it is ours, dammit. We think we have a right to own everything. If we don’t own it, we’ll just take it.
That “I got mine, you get yours” philosophy is one motivation for critics of eco-friendly approaches to moving around Salt Lake City. Fresh from that evening with the Wares, I had been wondering how, if at all, a bicycle-sharing program styled on European cities’ efforts might work here. Paris set up bike-lending kiosks a few years ago. People insert a credit card, grab a bike, zip around town for a while and return the bike. If they rip off the bike, they pay for it on the credit card.
Washington, D.C., has established “SmartBike”—a network of 120 bikes at 10 sites around the city. It’s underwritten by Clear Channel, which gets advertising space in the city’s bus bays in exchange for the commuter bikes and kiosks.
I asked City Weekly staff writer Eric Peterson to check into something similar for Salt Lake City, and two weeks ago, he wrote a story about it. Soon after, The Salt Lake Tribune hopped on board with its own story about bicycle-sharing networks. While dreamy City Council newcomers Luke Garrott and J.T. Martin say they want to make a bike-share work here, the Trib piece was filled with glum predictions, most of them from avid cyclists. The bikes, they said, would be stripped for parts or stolen.
OK, so it’s a dreamer’s fluffy little program. A hundred bikes for the borrowing do not a pollution solution make. But it would be symbolic, people. Forgive my going all Commie for a moment. The notion that renting out bikes simply will not work—ever—illustrates the vast difference between American and European sensibilities on public transportation and private ownership. Thanks to an ingrained American sensibility that we must own everything, we’ll likely see a good idea fall flat before it’s even tested. Bike sharing succeeds in Europe because the population accepts a certain level of collective concern and ownership.
You are seeing more people on bicycles around this state. Even early naysayers have succumbed to the success of TRAX. There is a grudging acceptance evolving in this frontier town of finite resources. We’ll continue to bitch and moan about Iran, Hugo Chavez and too few oil refineries, but in the end, the market will force us into downsizing.
But back to bike sharing. We really don’t have to horde or own everything ourselves in this country. People with half a vision could make it work. It’s a decent experiment in communal mentality, even on a minute scale. Wouldn’t you love to see the bike-sharing idea piloted here, just to see if it could, maybe, just possibly succeed?