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An American Cyclist & European Sensibilities

by Matthew González

Matthew GonzálezMatthew González is a pedestrian, cyclist, and in-denial vegetarian who blogs his adventures at www.mgregueiro.com. He formerly worked in Miami with Teach For America and now travels Europe doing research as a Fulbright Fellow. He launched www.mgregueiro.com as a place to discuss great ideas with the many great minds hiding throughout the wrinkles and corners of the interwebs. Check out his site to join the conversation.


Four months ago I sold my bike, packed everything I own into one backpack, and moved from Miami to Santander, Spain.

Crazy? Maybe a little.

Since I was a kid, I dreamed of moving to western Europe. I imagined it as a magical place where people commute by bike or foot, eat great food, and drink at all hours of the day while conversing about the economy, philosophy, and history.

I am now halfway into my time here and can say it has been even better than I imagined. It did, however, take me a long time to adapt my American instincts to life in Spain.

Santander, Spain

Miami

In Miami, I cycled seven miles to work. I was a dawn-patrol warrior, taking on a commute three miles longer than the average American. But when I moved to Spain and learned my home was seventeen miles from my job, my jaw dropped.

How was I going to take on thirty miles a day?

I love cycling, but I wasn’t ready to train for Le Tour de France.

The problem was not how far my job was, but that I understood distance as an American. In Miami, traveling seventeen miles required a car, or a long, long bike ride. But things are different in Europe.

Santander, Spain Train

Not Miami

I quickly found out that all of Spain is connected by an amazing system of buses and trains. How far was the nearest station to my apartment? Only a mile and a half! And from there I can jump on a train to work, Madrid, or anywhere else in Spain. I couldn’t believe it!

Since the commute was so short, I walked over to the train station to check out the route. In Miami, I once cycled to meet some friends at a bar only to find there was nowhere in a five mile radius to lock my bike. Now that I have a few more years of cycling under my belt, I assumed the worse.

Maybe the trains didn’t allow bikes? Maybe there was no place to securely lock my bike? All this was too good to be true, there had to be something wrong.

It turned out to be the opposite of my fears.

Not only is there a specific car for bikes, but there are places all over the station to lock my bike, and there is a bike share system throughout the city with a bikes-only path that connects my apartment  to the train station.

Santander, Spain Bikeshare

Absolutely not Miami

It was official, when I left the United States I died and woke up in heaven. This was the city of my dreams.

As I travel throughout Spain and western Europe, I am amazed to see that my experience in Santander is a common one.

In fact, compared to cities like Barcelona, Santander still has much room for growth in the area of cycling infrastructure: it is only with my American eyes that it seems years ahead of its time.

Living in Europe has shocked my American assumptions of what is possible, but in June the time will come to take my backpack out of the closet, again fill it with everything I own, and jump on a plane back to the United States. To be honest, I am a little worried: Santander has spoiled me.

Now that I have seen what it’s like to live in a city that places people before cars, I don’t think I will ever be able to live in Miami again. Poor city infrastructure has become a deal breaker.

On the same note, however, when I return to the US, I want to work to make what I have experienced here a reality on the other side of the Atlantic. There is no reason I should need to choose between living next to friends/family and living in a city that respects the needs of cyclist and pedestrians.

 
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6 Responses to “An American Cyclist & European Sensibilities”

  1. BluesCat says:

    I’m jealous, Matthew. Especially about the idea of getting “everything I own into one backpack”!

    I did that when I left home in my late teens. And every time I’ve moved since then I’ve required a bigger vehicle than the time before, because of all the additional sh… er … stuff I’ve collected.

    Next time we move, I’m gonna try to get back to that idea of getting all my stuff into a single backpack.

    Uh … does anybody know where I can get a bike messenger bag big enough for a 46″ LCD/LED television set?

  2. katerine says:

    Maybe the idea does not resonate with me since i have lived in New York City all of my life and I always dreamed driving fast in an open road. With all the traffic in Miami, I am considering other options.

  3. Matthew says:

    It is never too late. When I moved from LA to MIA I had to drive across country because of all the stuff I had accumulated. When I moved to Spain, I decided tell sell/donate everything that didn’t fit in a backpack and took off. It was very zen, very liberating.

  4. Shanna Ladd says:

    Its always encouraging to see and read about places that do such a great job accommodating those on bike and foot. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Sam says:

    Bike cars are great! I do very much that sort of commute out of San Francisco on the amazing-but-limited-in-scale Caltrain system.

  6. Matthew says:

    San Francisco is one of the cities we are moving back to when our time in Spain comes to an end! It has also been great to see cities like LA really step up their Metro system. It is an exciting time in the states for transportation.

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