When lower and slower are better

IRAIA thoughts
IRAIA thoughts

Some of my friends and colleagues were curious why I chose to take the six-hour train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin (and the same ride on my way back) instead of Easyjet, which is cheaper and faster.

This became the topic of conversation during a Berlin dinner with Tanja, Susanne, and other Misereor friends. At first I explained my choice with practical reasons such as train seats being more spacious and comfy, and the Hauptbanhof being a short walking distance from my hotel. Then I ended with a cryptic “It’s a philosophical question, actually.” They seemed to pick up my line of argument quickly enough, and I promised them a blog piece on the topic when I have time. Which is now.

The question of transport becomes a philosophical question when you are given a choice. At first glance, it seems like a purely economic or practical question. You want to save on fare money, so you pick the cheaper alternative. You want to get to your destination more quickly, so you pick the faster mode of transport. You want comfort, and so long as you can afford it, you go deluxe or business class.

But for me it’s a philosophical question that goes beyond fares and catching appointments. What do you really want to achieve that has long-term value, apart from economic and practical considerations? In long-distance trips, particularly, you are traveling across lands with eons of history. Haven’t you ever wondered how people live in these lands? Haven’t you ever imagined yourself suddenly thrust into their midst and forced to survive in alien settings? Haven’t you ever felt the urge to smell their soil and bathe in their rivers?

Even in routine commutes from home to work, often you have a choice of mode of transport and route, of points where you get on and off, of places where you choose to tarry along, and of places that you avoid. These decisions reflect personal, social and moral values. If you haven’t thought of long-range travel and daily transport in this way, then you’re probably missing something.

So, at this point, may I just offer my three rules guiding the Zen of transport:

1. Lower is better.

In my experience, I found out that the closer to the ground you are (in physical terms) while on travel, the closer you are to the condition of the land and people (in figurative terms). When you walk, or bike, or ride on an open car or cart, you can practically feel the terrain, hug the ground, and smell the grass and flowers. You bathe in the sunlight and wind. Yes, you risk being drenched in rain, or rutted in mud, or choked by road grime. But that’s part of the experience, and sooner or later you learn how to cope. (Did you know that many Dutch people bike in the rain with umbrellas?)

“Lower is better” also means preferring trains to planes, if only because the window-seat scenery is better, and because you have higher chances of survival in a train derailment compared to a plane crash.

2. Slower is better.

This rule sounds counter-intuitive if not outright crazy in this fast-paced modern world. And true, when I say “Slower is better,” I don’t mean to say “Slowest is best.” I also don’t mean to say “Slower is better” in all cases. Clearly it does not apply to police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and battle tanks, for example. But think of the advantages when people’s movements within the city are mostly limited to bikes, city scooters, buses with many stops, trams, and other slow-moving vehicles:  less accidents, less stress, more social interactions. Even mass-transport trains, for safety considerations, should not exceed certain speed limits.

Finally, there should be a strong push for dirigible-based air transport that may be much slower than current passenger airliners but consumes less per-capita energy, travels at safer speeds and elevations, are more maneuverable and can take off and land in more varied types of terrain and landing fields, and may prove to be cheaper to produce and maintain.

3. Renewables are better.

Pedal-powered transport has yet to be fully explored and maximized. In fact, this type of transport should enjoy the highest government and public support in terms of developing bicycle production and allied industries, instituting bicycle-friendly road systems and traffic rules, and community programs that encourage expanded bicycle use.

Solar-based electric-powered transport–from mass transport to individual and family vehicles, and related technologies–should also receive a high degree of government, research and development, and public support.

Animal-powered transport should not be ruled out, such as in certain upland territories. Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, apart from their charm that appeals to sports, recreational and tourist activities, have certain economic and practical transport advantages that have yet to be explored and maximized.

Without having to belabor the issue, I should stress finally that relying on modes of transport that are sustainable, environmentally sound, and of human scale, reflects a worldview that is both ecological and pro-people. Each time I choose to bike to work, I don’t only save on fare costs and engage in healthy exercise, I also validate once more this advanced worldview. #

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