Time to Put the Brakes On The European Idea Machine

By Phineas J. Stone

If you talk to the thinkers and policy makers around the neighborhood these days, one of the first phrases you hear is, “Well, in Europe they do things like this…”

It seems these days that all the answers to our problems here in Boston, thousands of miles away from Paris, Copenhagen or Berlin, lie in Europe – if we would only open our mind enough to implement now the genius they have adopted such a long time ago.

Leaders here in Boston have just recently visited Europe and are fresh back with more ideas to revolutionize our city in a way where all the systems we have now will be summarily deposited in the history books in favor of those marvelous ideas from Europe. The idea here is because we have traffic problems (nothing new with that) or there is a belief we will be under the sea soon, we are failing miserably and the answer is to do what Europe does.

This falls in line with all of the major ideas of the day – the fanatical belief that American ideas and systems are wrong-headed, shortsighted and, as some have said, evil. Of course, no one here is burying their head in the sand, but I tend to believe Boston and other cities have coped rather well with our challenges. That’s because they are our challenges, and we think about it, take all things into consideration, and come up with a plan that fits Boston. I’m not convinced Europe is the best example for us, and I appreciate what they do over there, but I would hate for it to become reality here.

Our ways aren’t wrong.

They aren’t misguided.

But, as is so common with the Internet generation, we must throw hundreds of years of careful thought and planning out the window because, somehow or another, after only a few decades on Earth, and through the magic of computers, we now know more than the wisdom that only comes with experience.

It’s an arrogant time to be alive.

The first thing is that Boston is not Europe, as much as we preach about being the American city most like Europe. We are an American city and that means we use cars. Europe never caught on to the automobile quite like we did, and in my opinion, they are worse off for it. The car has unlocked distance for the average person and allowed those of the most modest means the ability to get out of their block of the city to unlock economic and social opportunities.

My bet is that we hear a lot in the coming years about getting these cars off our streets. Instead of solving the problem the way Boston has done for generations (such as with the Big Dig, which is marvelous now in hindsight), we are going to force people to do things the way Europe does.

That will certainly mean there will be a call for people to ride bicycles.

Some will do this, but most people won’t want to, for the simple fact that we’re not Europe. In Copenhagen, where bicycles are most prevalent, there are far fewer people and the climate – believe it or not – is not nearly as harsh. Even in northern Europe, there is far less snow and cold than we get here. All across the continent there, the weather is much, much different than it is here. Snow and extreme cold are our largest playing cards in this situation, and Europe doesn’t even have to worry about such things.

That will present a problem, so our leaders will do things the way Europe has: by force.

And when leaders force things on people, it is always the lower income and middle income people who lose out.

I can picture extremely higher excise taxes for gasoline engines that drive more than 10,000 miles in a year.

Or how about charging a toll to go to the center of the city or use the highways; zone charges they call them?

A gas tax – perhaps even a municipal fuel tax such as the local option restaurant tax imposed a few years ago – is almost a certainty.

I can almost bet that parking rates for meters and City lots will rise to exorbitant levels in order for us to not want to come into the city with a vehicle. It costs $2 and change to park at a meter right now for two hours. I’ll take that deal any day. But what happens when that goes up to $10 or $15, especially if I park at three or four meters every day?

Maybe then I start trying to find a different way to get around – by force, of course.

Naturally, all of this will be related to health, and driving a car with a gasoline engine will be frowned upon, perhaps even “evil” in some circles. We will have to do it for the sake of the children! Who can vote against that?

I’ve been to Europe in the past and recently, and I see how it is that they operate.

Regular Europeans give up comfort, safety, and convenience because it’s the only way they can get where they need to go. Their gasoline rates are so sky-high – even with a worldwide glut of oil – and the barriers to a car so onerous, that they have no choice to get on a bike or use their feet.

They ride their bikes in the pouring rain, showing up soaking wet to work. They get in wrecks and they get hurt. They also injure themselves.

They move closer to their work and live in small or cramped apartments.

Things become so expensive that those with a good job are forced to live in low-income housing projects – subjecting their families to the ills of drug dealing and violence, things we try to get away from. I have a relative in France who has an excellent working class job, and a great family. His family lives in a high-rise housing project, and he walks many miles to get to where he works because parking a car and gassing it up are just too expensive.

We’re on that path too, by the way. Our leaders are calling it ‘workforce housing.’ It’s simply another way to lower the standard of living for those with good, but not great, jobs. We’ve chased away all the great jobs for folks in that category, and now we’re going to put people who were self-sufficient – just like our friends in Europe have done – into housing projects subsidized by the state and federal government.

Is that the progress we’re seeking?

Do we really want to get on the path to progress by force? Making more people dependent on tax dollars for essential things?

As a Bostonian, I like to have choices. I like to be able to make my own choices, not be compelled to take a path that someone else has forged for me.

I don’t think I’m alone in that.

There’s no doubt Europe has some ideas to ponder, but in my opinion, Europeans should be visiting Boston to see how it is we keep the free will of our people alive, integrate our immigrants (which they don’t), and still solve our problems with big ideas that, somehow, we make into reality.


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