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Feet don't fail me now.

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
June 28, 2003


Did I hit pay dirt or what?

I always knew I would love Amsterdam. I mean what's not to love? Old world city with groovy nightlife of cafes and coffee shops, world-class cuisine, vital history, vibrant diversity, thriving art scene, high street shopping and red light slumming, and countless other temptations for every discernable taste. My favorite? The stylish Puccini, a bomboni boutique near the Jordaan's grey area. Chocolate decadence so addicting, we ran across town to restock before heading for Paris.

Such is the life of the bourgeois.

Now of course I'm not a fan of big cities. They're crowded, smelly, dirty, usually littered with dog feces, and lack all but fragments of living non-human biology. I also have an aversion for anyplace unfit for human life. So when planning our trip to Amsterdam, I figured the most I could expect was a taste of personal freedom attached to three days of gonzo tourism. At the time I had no idea how beautiful this city of 700,000 truly was. Nor did I understand how truly progressive the city really is.

From the moment we arrived I couldn't help but gawk at a city more than twice the age of western governance of North America. Not only is the city old, it has also found a way to sustain itself under less than encouraging conditions. Built on landfill in an area reclaimed from the sea, this city has achieved an incredible balance, while constantly meeting the challenge of maintaining economic viability and environmental responsibility.

And yes I'm sure Amsterdam has skeletons in it's municipal closet. I don't even want to think about the toxicity of the canal water or how the city disposes of its solid waste stream. And then there is the question of buildings leaning at odd angles.

While getting a tattoo in such a building, I was treated to a bitch session regarding city politics, graft, and the crackdown on individual freedoms, due to pressure from advocates of the European Union. Complaints of taxation without representation, American globalization, corporate fascism, and illegal immigration differed in name and nationality only. The general consensus was that Amsterdam was no longer recognizable, and that trucks were responsible for sagging buildings, and it would soon be time to move on.

I laughed, of course, knowing in a globalized world there is nowhere else to go.

Coming from a place where people rely on the family SUV to pop down to the 7-11 for milk and beer, I noted there was no place to park anything larger than a V.W. BUG, let alone a Ford Excursion. As a visitor, I was completely charmed by the city of canals. If it were possible to exist in a Kodak moment this would be the place. For three days we did nothing but eat, walk, and marvel at how easy it would be to live without an automobile if given the chance.

Unlike Southern California, where transportation choices range from monstrous automobiles, buses from hell, trains to get you somewhat close to your point of destination, and the never popular walk or ride at your own risk option, Amsterdam is a city where bicycles out number automobiles a hundred to one. And getting around is easy once you know where you're going. Density has its advantages.

If transportation choices had a "Rock, Paper, Scissors" game to clarify dominance in any given market, bicycles would win every time in Amsterdam. Pedestrians trump trams. Trams best autos. Autos take out pedestrians, and bicycles rule everything but the canals. And like everywhere else in the world, the people on in-line skates were of no significance.

Bikes are everywhere- chained to everything.

I can't count the number of times I was nearly run down by cyclists. Cars you can here coming, providing enough time to yield the right of way. Trams are hard to miss, and the only way to encounter a canal boat is to fall into a canal, at which point on-coming traffic would be the least of your worries. Other than a twinkling bell bikes are silent, and come at you from every which way. Once I had to dodge a woman on a bike with shopping in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

Thankfully, Amsterdam was designed centuries before the automobile, and therefore easy it's to get around the city with sensible walking shoes and map in hand. Seeing that it is possible for a city to thrive without the ecological damage associated with the burning of fossil fuels, and the over-development needed to accommodate vehicular traffic.

Having seen Amsterdam, I now see California as so far behind the transportation-planning curve it borders on retardation. I also know that walkable communities are not only possible but also highly preferable to the polluting gridlock of San Diego County. California has a lot to learn from the Dutch. Human oriented transportation planning is a fabulous concept.

I do hope it catches on.

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