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Monday, May 4, 2009

Update From Germany

I am staying in a medium-sized city of about 120,000, or about the size of Columbia, MD. Any other similarity to Columbia ends there.

The city is very ethnically diverse, with lots of Turks, Africans, Russians, Irish, Americans, and Koreans, as well as countless others. It is mostly middle to lower middle class. The city is connected to the Audobahn by a spur. No freeways run through the town, and only one runs by it, with two lanes in each direction. The width of that entire freeway is barely more than a third of the footprint of I-95 in Howard County.

There is a light rail train with a complimenting bus service, all of which lead to a rail station with IC train service, meaning if I step out of the front door of my apartment, I can walk 100 feet to a tram station and get anywhere in Europe without getting into a car, taxi, or airplane.

The entire city is also covered in bike lanes. They have their own traffic signals seperate from cars and pedestrians. Their lanes cross into pedestrian sidewalks about as often as cars have to share lanes with buses and streetcars, which isn't much.

There is very little crime, people walk around care free and confident virtually all parts of the city at all times of day.

My (American government) job requires me to drive daily. The city streets are 2 meters (about six and a half feet) wide and rarely more than one or two lanes in each direction, if that. The automiobiles of residents are parked in courtyards. At least half the street parking is metered. Iäd say I've never had trouble finding aparking space in town, but I have never driven anywhere in town because I generally walk when I am not working.

Since I have landed in Europe, I have yet to see a single car accident, and I have driven over 1000km in two different countries. I have also not been in a single traffic jam that was not construction related.

The down is distinctly separated from other towns by large tracts of farms and forests. Virtually all buildings are

The city center is closed to automobiles except taxis. It is about a square mile of apartments above shops and businesses, including a shopping mall that is two blocks from the nearest legal parking space.

Best of all, I have been in my apartment for only two weeks and I am on a first name basis with my grocer, the proprietors of four restaurants, the staff at two bars, three of my neighbors, and the gentlemen who run this internet cafe. By contrast, I have lived in Laurel for five years and the only people who know my name are three of my neighbors and my barber.

I am not exactly staing in Mayberry, either. This is a very blue collar industrial town in Central Europe. There are no skyscrapers, no large business headquarters, and no attractions you are likely to find in most guidebooks. If anything, this is a sub-standard European town by comparison to the others I have visited. But the quality of life here is phenomenal.

This experience really makes me stop and wonder what places like Columbia, MD are doing wrong. Columbia certainly boasts a wealthier population that here. But this town has more parkland, more greenspace within walking distance, less traffic, less crime, and a community of people that actually know each other.

This would be an interesting litmus test for many of us: How many people in walking distance to your house know your name? For me, 4 in Laurel, and 14 here. That is the difference of living in a community focused on itself.