The bicycle and pedestrian facilities of European cities are often cited as examples of an enlightened future. It is certainly fascinating to see how many people are walking, cycling, and riding transit– but the streets are still thronged with cars and every sort of wheeled conveyance.

On a recent trip to France and Belgium I was interested to see how all this transportation interaction works out. One point that struck me is the difference in attitudes between Americans and Europeans.

Drivers in the US are not accustomed to obstacles on the road except for other cars. You’ll hear a chorus of horns when a car making a right turn lingers for a slow pedestrian. Once behind the wheel we become desperately impatient and quick to anger.

Sharing the street in Lubljana, Slovenia

American bicyclists live in a different world as well. The surprising challenges of European streets include cobblestones and bricks, curving tramway tracks, and streets that diverge at odd angles and narrow abruptly according to some medieval logic. Then there are the swarms of pedestrians striding purposefully across every foot of roadway and bikeway.

But attitudes seem to make all the difference. European drivers accept their status as second class citizens, but make up for it by parking on the sidewalks and speeding down improbably narrow alleys. Yet they are conditioned to anticipate walkers stepping into traffic at any moment and to inch along with stoic politeness as cyclists putter down the middle of any street. And given the state of the sidewalks, motorists are likely to share the road with wheelchairs as well.

Of course there are miles of cycle tracks along major roads, and this is where the tourist quickly finds that an attitude adjustment is needed. Yes, you are holding up bike traffic and confusing the truck drivers with your lack of aggression. Get with the program!

We like to see facilities as the solution, and we like to blame our policies and politicians. Yet so often, success comes down to what can’t be funded or legislated: attitude.

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