Thinking comparatively, one of the best ways to gauge how sustainably a population is living is to observe how people get from Point A to Point B during their daily routines: going to work, the store, getting from home to places of entertainment, and shopping.
In many parts of the United States (suburban Chicago and Wisconsin definitely included), the car is clearly KING! If you’re in Madison all you need to do is drive beyond the Isthmus to see how apparent that is: wide roads and highways connect malls, strip malls, and parking lots to each other. Side walks are hard to come by (try walking in Sun Prairie out where the new Woodman’s was built, I dare you) and biking remains far from an ideal option either.
Come to Freiburg though and going to a big-box store like IKEA is not a journey exclusively reserved for the car, but rather one that can be made with multiple forms of transportation. That, for me at least, was a huge relief (even if not the most comfortable journey I will admit). Obviously here I do not drive (I barely do at home in Chicago for that matter), so getting to IKEA to make some much needed purchases was both a daunting thought, but a very necessary trip.
On Saturday morning—sans automobile—a whole contingent of American students departed their various places of residence, meet at the Freiburg Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and boarded the #11 bus to IKEA (the destination sign is actually “IKEA”).
Although a longer journey than most of us regularly make because of the distance, it didn’t take more than about 20 minutes to get to the outskirts of town from the Altstadt. The bus was amazingly user friendly, the route was clearly marked, and the bus stop was literally outside the store. What I mean by there is that there was nothing like the trek across parking lots, planted barriers, or large streets without crosswalks that you get in the USA.
Upon our arrival it was clear that going to IKEA with a car was more convenient. There was a parking lot with ample space and numerous cars flowing regularly in and out. Now, that is understandable at a place like IKEA. Let’s face it, most people (German, American, or French—there were many of them too) are not going to go buy a new dinning room set then hop on the bus of Straßenbahn. However, it was striking nonetheless how multimodal this big-box store was. First, we were not the only people getting off the bus and making a b-line into IKEA. There were plenty of others (and more waiting at the return bus stop who were leaving the store). Secondly, in addition to ample parking spaces there were bike racks. Bike racks!
If you’ve ever been to an IKEA in the Midwest, it is not unlikely you went or have been to the store outside of Chicago in Schaumburg, Illinois. Imagine a filled row of bike racks outside of the store there, in the heart of sprawling suburban Chicago. It wouldn’t happen. Ever.
This little experience certainly made me think. If sprawl looks like this in Germany, where mass transit, walking, bikes, and cars intermingle peacefully and going to a big-box store to shop does not automatically include a ride in a car, why does it have to look so different in the USA?
Now granted, I realize there are major differences still. A city the size of Madison, Wisconsin can only stay so compact by being built at a significantly higher density, which Americans may not be keen on having because that means more apartments and condos and less lawns and subdivisions. However, could it be that bad? My friend joked how half the things in this store were in her house in Wisconsin, so there has to be something similar going on in the minds of suburban Wisconsinites and Germans.
Germans do not live at a lower standard than we do, because they don’t all have acre lots with huge lawns. We buy the same things at the same stores and live well. But they have figured out a way to leave a much smaller impact on the world than us.
What I ponder is how do we get from suburban environments like Schaumburg or Sun Prairie to those around Freiburg? Where we currently live, we produce a huge amount of CO2 and use more and more oil while consuming land that could be used for nature preserves (which in turn act as park land for city dwellers) and farms with better access to markets. All this is simply to run and buy some glasses and a new set of dishes.
Here, that can be done on a bike if you live close enough, and even if you don’t it is still a reasonable bus trip. Land is saved from being turned into parking lots, less oil is consumed, and CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions go down for every person who doesn’t have to drive. It adds up, but this math is being considered in the USA. Why must that be so?
Seeing what is being done in Freiburg is a very positive sight for me. It is obvious that a Mischung between the inevitable elements of urbanism and suburban living and sustainable planning can exist. It is happening here in Freiburg, but do Americans have it in them to get there? There are Swedish Meatballs waiting in the cafeteria either which way; why not get them knowing you’re helping the planet bit by bit?