Greener, Cleaner, Leaner

An article I recently wrote has appeared on the Needham Patch and People for Bikes websites. You can check it out online at http://www.peopleforbikes.org/stories/entry/greener_cleaner_leaner/ or read it here:

My family and I recently returned from a trip to Austria and Southern Germany. What a difference in how residents of these areas shop and participate in their communities as compared to people in MetroWest Boston. Whether a large city like Vienna or a community of 12,000 like Murnau, Germany, the day-to-day transactions of buying food and interacting with people on the street are far different than how we do it here. And it seems they are getting far more enjoyment out of every day living than we are.

The Austrians use much less water, plastic bags, and gasoline than we do. They have fresher produce, slimmer waistlines, and more opportunities to interact with their fellow townspeople. As a whole, it seems like a far more personally satisfying and economically rewarding way to go about life.

We shopped for our food while in Austria. The stores are much smaller, but the range of options was equal to an America supermarket. Austrian markets tend to have less quantity of produce that is far fresher than ours. I believe the reason is people shop for their food every one to three days. They buy just what they need for a few days and come back. They bring their own basket or bag to put their purchases in and they travel to and from the store on foot or on commuter bike.

It helps to know that there are bike lanes everywhere. The lanes are fully integrated into almost every sidewalk. It doesn’t matter if it is a byway originally created in 1450 Vienna or a new roadway development in the countryside. Bikes are considered, encouraged, and used everywhere we went.

Most of the bikes were the “cruiser” models that we consider more of a novelty here in America: upright handlebars, wide tires, wide seat — the comfy Oldsmobile 88 model of a bike — completely useable by most people. And many people were using them. I saw chic 30-year-old women leaving restaurants after an early week night dinner; guys with groceries in the basket and a small brief case slung over the shoulder; and women of retirement age, carefully negotiating passersby with fresh flowers poking out amongst their produce.

This scenario, of buying just enough food to stick in the front and back basket of your bike and using your own energy to get home, may sound like the most inefficient waste of time to any MetroWest Mom. But think about the perfect beauty and utility of what is going on:

–      You have to be amongst your townspeople, at street level, making your way to the market. You get to actually interact with people. “Hello, Mr. Florist!” “How’s it going, Ms. Neighbor Lady?”

(You’re not perched high in your SUV with the tinted windows up, using the cell phone to multitask, blocking out the people around you. You’ve effectively bubble wrapped yourself in layers of anonymous protection: the large car, the tinted windows, the tinted sunglasses to avoid eye contact.)

–      You buy only the foodstuffs you think you’ll need, knowing you have the opportunity to return in a few days.

(Gone are the opportunities to over buy food because you took the time to drive the SUV to the big box store. You made the great migration in the large vehicle and now feel obliged to load up. You see the bulk pack of cheese popcorn, so you buy it. Now it’s at home with you. Waiting for you, lurking in the pantry. It owns you. You eat it, because you took the time, travel, and money to buy it. )

–      You get to consume fresher food, because you’re only buying produce for a three-day window. The produce turns over more quickly in the store, because everyone is doing the same.

(If stores stocked less stuff of better quality, you would no longer be the victim of a system that, by nature of our buying habits, requires an eight-day-old green to be the only option in freshness. You may be more likely to buy fresh produce more frequently because hey, it’s now really fresh.)

If we had bike lanes and smaller stores, I believe our day-today happiness would improve.

This fantasy of happier day-to-day living is not so far fetched. Think about how the small interactions with the other people in your community would feed your soul. How moving your legs and getting the blood pumping as part of your day would be a pleasant experience, and how having fresher food to consume would be a delight to you and those you share meals with.

If we make small shifts towards using less plastic bags, shopping locally, and supporting bike lanes, we can quite possibly make a significant improvement in how we use our most important resources — our energy and our time.