Brandon Greenblatt // 27 October 2015 // #GoingGreen
A few weeks ago, when I had some free time and the sun was shining outside, I decided to leave my university campus and go for a bike ride around Washington, DC. I set off for the National Mall, a prime tourist destination located in the heart of the US capital. This being my first time on the Mall this semester, I was excited to visit some of the iconic city landmarks, including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the White House. (For our German readers, the National Mall is an outdoor space in the center of Washington, DC where most of the national monuments and memorials to influential presidents are located!)
My ride took me through the Georgetown neighborhood, along a bike path next to the Potomac River, and finally into the center of the city. I found my trip to be a great opportunity for exercise, reflection, and some time outdoors. It got me thinking…why don’t my American peers and I ride our bikes more often?
Germany is notable for its green transportation - from lower-emissions vehicles to bicycles - as a convenient and environmentally friendly way of getting around. While the United States is definitely making progress towards offering greener forms of transportation (bicycle use in particular), it still has a ways to go.
In the United States, one’s socio-economic status can be a major barrier to owning a bicycle. A 2009 study conducted by the Community Cycling Center, a nonprofit organization located in Portland, Oregon, found that African and Hispanic individuals are disproportionately unable to afford a bicycle. Even those who are able to purchase a bicycle still struggle to maintain it and pay for repairs. Of course, this economic barrier is not unique to bicycle ownership and is even more widespread for other forms of green transportation. Low and middle-income individuals across the United States struggle to afford many forms of high-tech transportation, such as hybrid and electric cars, which exhibit high financial barriers to entry.
Luckily, many cities in the United States offer programs to make bicycles more accessible to the average citizen. Capital Bikeshare, founded in 2010, provides low-cost bicycle rentals to individuals in Washington, DC and the surrounding Virginia area. Nice Ride Minnesota is a program similar to Capital Bikeshare and provides 1,550 bicycles for rent at 170 kiosks throughout Minneapolis and in nearby St. Paul. In my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Knight Foundation Cycling Fund just recently gave Sustain Charlotte (a nonprofit that promotes green development patterns) a grant of $204,000 to promote bicycle use in the city.
Still, cycling is a viable form of transportation only as long as cities possess the infrastructure to support it. Living in Washington, DC, I’m lucky to be able to ride through a city with designated bike lanes that allow cyclists to ride outside of busy city traffic. In other cities, however, where automobile use is prioritized over cycling, it will take political haggling to convince city leadership to provide more bike lanes and cyclist-friendly infrastructure. The availability of such infrastructure is perhaps one of the most important determinants for whether or not a population will use bicycles as a form of urban transportation. In fact, a Forbes Magazine study in May 2015 ranked the top 20 most bike-friendly cities in the United States, and half of the evaluative criteria (including miles of bike lanes and road connectivity) were directly related to public infrastructure.
Ultimately, cycling as a form of green transportation will materialize only if a population wills it. In the United States, citizens are endowed with the opportunity to petition their local, state, and federal governments to implement cyclist-friendly policies. For that to happen, however, Americans have to intrinsically value green transportation as an alternative to automobile use. Americans – and individuals across the globe – would need to place a lower premium on their time and a higher value on protecting the environment. Clearly, this transformation is already occurring, and urban programs such as Capital Bikeshare and Nice Ride Minnesota show that many Americans hope that daily bicycle use can become a reality. For many Germans, however, this practice already is a reality.
This is a critical point and, I believe, a poignant opportunity for Germany and the United States to cooperate on sustainability issues. What makes bicycle use so widespread in Germany, and how can it become integrated into American culture? Do Americans need to increase access to bicycles, do they need to provide infrastructure that supports safe transportation, or is there a broader societal norm that needs to be addressed? Conversely, where has the United States made strides in sustainability, and which of those policies can Germany modify and adopt for itself? Germany and the United States are continually innovating and “going green,” but it is only with communication and transatlantic cooperation that we will truly make a difference.
Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.