Flensburg Files News Flyer 5 September 2012

There were a lot of events that happened while I was on hiatus for a few weeks, two of which were spent back in Flensburg and the surrounding area with my family. Most of the events have a zero at the end of each number, marking some events that should not have happened but they did. However some high fives are included in the mix that are deemed memorable for Germany, and even for this region. Here are some short FYIs that you may have not heard of while reading the newspaper or listening the news, but are worth noting:

Rostock-Lichterhagen:

22-24 August marked the 20th anniversary of the worst rioting in the history of Germany since the Kristallnacht of 1938. During that time, Lichterhagen, a suburb of Rostock, the largest city in Mecklenburg-Pommerania in northeastern Germany was a refugee point for Roma and Vietnamese immigrants. However, it was a focus of three days of clashes between residents and right-wing extremists on one side, and the refugees on the other. Fires broke out in the residential complex where the refugees were staying, causing many to escape to the roof. Hundreds of people were injured in fighting, while over 1000 were arrested, most of them right wing extremists originating as far as the former West Germany. The incident cast a dark shadow over the city and its government for not handling the issue of foreigners  properly, let alone having trained police officers to end the conflict. It also set off the debate dealing with the problem of right-wing extremism in Germany, especially in the former East Germany, where neo-nazis remained underground until after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Over 70% of the refugees affected by the violence left Rostock after the incident. President Gauck attended the 20th anniversary ceremony on 24 August and spoke about the dangers to democracy.

More info on the incident can be found here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot_of_Rostock-Lichtenhagen; http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,16194604,00.html

 

Munich:

Today marks the 40-year anniversary of the Munich Olympics Massacre. A Palestinian terrorist group stormed the a house where 11 Israelis were living, held them hostage and later killed all of them as the police tried to set them free. It overshadowed a then successful Olympic Games, which was the first for Germany since hosting the Games in 1936 in Berlin. Germany was in the process of reconciling with the Jews after the Holocaust, only to be reminded painfully through the event that it had a long way to go in order to become a multi-cultural state and be able to mend its relations with the Jews. Since that time, the country has long since healed from the wounds of the terrorist, the relations with Israel and the Jewish community have improved dramatically, but memories of the event are still there and will not be forgotten.  Info here.

The famous slogan that was found throughout all of Sonderburg. Better luck next time.

Aarhus:

Every year in Europe, there is a city that is nominated as a Capital of Culture, based on the cultural diversity and economic state. During that year, a variety of festivals and events marking the city’s heritage take place, drawing in three times as many people on average than usual. While this year’s title goes to Maribor (Slovakia) and Guimares (Portugal) and the hosts for 2013 goes to Marseilles (France) and Kosice (Slovakia), Aarhus (Denmark) outbid Flensburg’s Danish neighbor to the north, Sonderburg to be the 2017 European Capital. It is the second city in Denmark to host this title (Copenhagen was the Cultural Capital in 1996). Had Sonderburg won, it would have joined Flensburg to host the event, which would have made Flensburg the fourth German city to host the event. Both cities will continue with joint projects to draw in more people to visit and live in the region. Berlin (1988), Weimar (1999) and Essen (2010) were the other German cities that were Cultural Capitals since the initiative was approved in 1985. More information here:    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Capital_of_Culture

Mirror reflection of Gluecksburg Castle. Photo taken during the 425th birthday celebration.

Low attendance at the open-air church service due to hot and humid weather.

Gluecksburg:

The castle of Gluecksburg, located northeast of Flensburg,  celebrated its 425th anniversary during the weekend of 18-19 August, with concerts and an open-air church service. Attendance was low due to warm and humid weather, plus it had celebrated the 12th annual Beach Mile a weekend earlier. The castle was built to house of the Royal Family of King Christian IX of Gluecksburg-Sonderburg, whose family bloodline covers five countries including the UK and France. The Castle was vacated after World War I when the Royalty was forced into exile but was later converted into a museum. The castle is one of a few that is surrounded by a lake, making it accessible only by bridge. More information on the castle will be presented in another separate article.

 

50 Years of Soccer in Germany:

Germany is now in its second month of the three-tiered German Bundesliga season, which marks its 50th anniversary. Initiated in 1962, the league featured 16 teams that originated from five different leagues in Germany, including ones from Muenster, Berlin, Munich, Dortmund and Cologne. The league now features three top flight leagues (the top two featuring 18 teams each and the third league (established in 2008) featuring 20 teams). To learn more about how the German Bundesliga works and read about its history, a couple links will help you:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fu%C3%9Fball-Bundesliga

http://www.dfb.de/index.php?id=511741

A couple articles pertaining to German soccer is in the mix, as the Files did a segment on the problem with German soccer. The first two can be viewed here:

Part I

Part II

What was that? I’m being photographed? Well then, here you go!

Flensburg Files now on flickr:

Available from now on, the Flensburg Files is now available on flickr, together with its sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. Just type in FlensburgBridgehunter12 and you are there. You will have an opportunity to view the photos taken by the author and comment on them as you wish. Subscriptions are available. The Files is still available through Twitter and Facebook where you can subscribe and receive many articles that are in the mix. One of which deals with a tour of the Holnis region, which is in the next column.

Copenhagenization: The contagion that could change the way we think of bicycles

Here’s a pop quiz for you to consider before you read the column further: What is  Copenhagenization and who thought of the idea to begin with?

On road with a rented bike

When I first heard of the term Copenhagenization, it was during the time I was teaching the city planners English at the university and the crew at CNN and its host, Richard Quest filmed a documentary about this subject as part of the series on Future Cities (Link: http://business.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/07/tackling-copenhagens-traffic-with-bicycles/      ).  Basically Copenhagenization, which originates from the Danish capital, is the process of encouraging people to use their bikes on a regular basis instead of the cars, by constructing bike trails in areas needed the most and in many cases, such as wandering through Copenhagen on a sunny day, making bikes available for people to use.  As one can see while wandering through the city, one will see the most basic characteristics of Copenhagen and the much dense bike trail network: bike racks full of bikes in the city center and the railway station filling up a Wal-mart SuperCenter store, six to eight lanes of traffic; two of which are designated for bikes only and 1-2 for pedestrians only, traffic signals for bikes only, and a recent development which Mr. Quest pointed out in his documentary and I can only confirm from my own personal experience, bike jams!
Unlike cars, which clog the streets with fumes from the engine and lots of noise (a major problem in the 1950s which led to the Copenhagen city council to convert the city center into a car-free bike and pedestrian zone and push cars back to the outskirts) bike jams imply that there are too many bikes on the trail, making it impossible to pass anybody in front of you who is going slower than your speed. While the jam was not bad during my time in Copenhagen, it can be potentially worse during rush hour traffic; especially when people commute to places outside the city as well as its Swedish neighbor across the sea, Malmø.
But while biking through the city, I can see with the few cars that are on the streets, the close quarters many of the residents live in, and the lanes that are designated for bikes only, bike jams are only a part of daily life that most people have to deal with.  It is as if people biking to work is the way of life in the city, and from my own point of view, there are many advantages to biking around a city like Copenhagen than by travelling with the car. You can meet new people along the way, reach your destination in the city with little or no complications, and if you’re like me and have a hobby like bridgehunting, you can visit and enjoy the places that clearly belong to your hobby (Please refer to the sister column’s  article on Copenhagen’s bridges for more details).
For me though, while Copenhagenization also has a hidden meaning, which is reduce the carbon dioxide emissions and make the capital a carbon-neutral city by 2025, it does provide people with a chance to get acquainted with the city and its surroundings while at the same time, be awed and amused at the type of bikes that are being used on the city’s designated routes.  I rented a city bike for the day and toured the city before heading to the shores of the Baltic Sea in the vicinity of the Øresundbro-Bridge, going through many villages, like Ørestad, Tårnby and Dragør, and even going through a large section of birch tree forest, which represented a scene from a fairy tale with a white deer roaming through. More on the harmony between nature and city-life will be in a later article. On the way to the foggy shores of the Baltic, I encountered many fancy types of bikes that residents use for getting from A to B and realized that when there is a will to go places (with or without cargo), then there is the bike. Apart from the 2-3 man tandem bike, there is the bike taxi, where the biker transports people sitting in the back seats from one place to another. As far as children are concerned, while parents would place their kids on a seat behind them on the back carrier or on the horizontal frame  in front of them, there are 3-wheel bikes where the compartment is at the very front of the bike-supported by two wheels. One can use the compartment for transporting goods if he does not have a child to transport around.  Others use bike trailers that are attached to the back of the bike to carry their goods around. And then there are the homeless who use their bike to carry their belongings around and camp out somewhere where no one sees them.  No matter where you go, there are bikes everywhere. When taking a break on the bench, you will see an average of 40 bikes passing by in the span of only two minutes! Compared to US or even German standards, that is a lot; especially since Americans are more automobile oriented and Germans are more dependent on public transport. Admittedly though, the trend is changing as more trails are being constructed in both countries (more so in the former) so that more people are encouraged to use the two-wheelers for getting to work and back. It is no wonder why in Copenhagen, two wheels rule the streets!
In case there are some people who think differently about biking and prefer taking the car, one should list the reasons why the car is more convenient than the bike and then look and even ask the residents in Copenhagen (and even the Danes, in general) why they choose the bike instead of the car. When looking at how Copenhagenization is influencing the way city planners both in Europe and America are making the streets more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians and seeing how each town- big and small- are introducing the bike trails in their communities, there are three underlying motives for encouraging biking: cost reduction, improving one’s health and the environment, and most of all, convenience.  While it may be a pain in the popo for those who were accustomed to using the car, in the end when looking at how the Danes treat biking as if it is a way of life and thinking of the long-term benefits, biking is well worth the efforts that are being encouraged by the communities and those who favor them. Speaking from the experience of a cyclist who has been biking in Europe for over 12 years and has seen the expansion of the bike trails over the years, I can say that Copenhagen deserves to be recognized for not only its efforts to encourage people to bike and make it convenient for them to get to their destinations without using the car, but also influencing others to consider making their streets and other areas of the communities biker-friendly. The more bikes that are on the streets and trails, the more people will leave their cars in the garage and take their two-wheelers  to the streets and enjoy a beautiful day, like I did going by bike through Copenhagen.

Photos:

Numerous bikes crowding an ice cream parlor in Copenhagen's city center

 

Bike with baby trail parked in front of the apartment

 

Parked for a visit

 

Bike taxis at your disposal

 

Night on the Town by Bike

 

Eight lanes of traffic at Tarnby (near Cph.): Outmost lanes for pedestrians, followed by bicycle lanes and two lanes of traffic before meeting the center median

 

Cycling in the wildernis outside Copenhagen near the airport

 

 

Rows of bikes at Copenhagen Railway Station

 

Example of a traffic jam at Norreport (Cph)

 

 

Flensburg Files News Flyer- 17 September 2011

Some wild and unexpected events have occurred in the past couple days will raise your eyebrows as the Flensburg Files presents you with its batch of News Flyers. While some are not surprising as the events have been plastered on the international level (but in short blips), others-especially in Thuringia and Schleswig-Holstein reveal examples of what is yet to come on a larger scale. So without further ado…..

Danish Parliamentary Building in Copenhagen- photo taken in August 2011

Denmark goes left and has first female prime minister
After 10 years of conservative rule under Lars Rasmussen, the Danish population on Thursday went to the polls and elected the Social Democrats back into power. And with that a first in Danish history- a female prime minister by the name of Helle Thorning-Schmidt will be appointed to lead the country.  Despite a razor-thin margin of victory, the center-left party will gain 89 seats in parliament and construct a coalition with the Social Liberal Party, in light of Rasmussen’s concession to defeat and resulting resignation (which he submitted to Queen Margaret the following day).  Rasmussen’s leadership during his ten years included attempts of putting a cap on immigration in the country. Yet he was a target of many controversies including implementing stricter border controls with neighboring Germany and Sweden, prompting the governments to protest the country’s policies and the European Union to threaten the country with sanctions. That combined with the increased unemployment and its first deficit in response to the economic crisis played a considerable role in the population’s decision for a change, which they hope to achieve with the 44-year old social democrat. Her plans will include easing border controls, which will breathe a sigh of relief for people living in the border towns of Malmø and Flensburg, which not only have large pockets of Danish living there, but rely on Denmark for commerce and trade.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_parliamentary_election,_2011

 

 

Erfurt Cathedral: Site of the Holy Mass on 24 September- Photo taken in March 2011

Pope Benedikt XVI to visit Germany
Stores are offering deals in connection with his visit, security is being beefed up in many places and people in town are talking about it. Pope Benedikt XVI will tour Germany next weekend, and the country is opening its arms to greet the former German bishop who once was known as  Joesph Ratzinger. The three day visit will include stops in the capital of Berlin, followed by Erfurt and in the end Freiburg im Breisgau. In Berlin, he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff, which will be followed by mass at the Olympic Stadium. After the visit, he spends two days in Thuringia, which includes the visit to St. Marien Church and the Erfurter Dom Cathedral- both in Erfurt and a vesper in Etzelbach, located southwest of the Thuringian capital. His final stop in Lahr and Freiburg in Baden-Wurttemberg will include meeting former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the judges of the federal supreme court of Karlsruhe  and will feature a youth vigil on the evening of the 25th before his trip back to Rome.  The Flensburg Files will feature highlights of the visit which will take place from 22-25 September. Stay tuned.
Link: http://www.papst-in-deutschland.de/programm/; http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin/article1456122/Freude-in-Berlin-ueber-Papst-Besuch-2011.html
Thuringian Airports in Trouble- Airlines pull out.
Despite using the airport as a platform for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, the Erfurt Airport is finding itself in serious trouble, as Cirrus Airline announced that beginning in March 2012, there will be no more service to Munich. Earlier this year, AirBerlin, which had provided services to Berlin and Nuremberg decided to pull out for the aforementioned reasons. The problems however go beyond the airport, which has been serving the Thuringian capital since 1992. In Altenburg, located 1.5 hours south of Leipzig and only 30 minutes east of nearby Gera in eastern Thuringia, its airport lost its only state connection to the UK, when Ryanair this past March cut its services to London-Stanstedt.  The problems with the two airports are twofold. First, both airports have problems attracting passengers because of its proximity to its nearest competitors, Nuremberg, Magdeburg and Leipzig-Halle. Despite modernizing its airport in 1994, Erfurt has yet to reach its maximum capacity as only an average of 500,000 passengers visit the airport each year.  The airport in Altenburg, which once was a military base serving the former East Germany, was a main attraction for tourists coming from the UK and points north and west thanks to Ryanair. Secondly (which is not a surprise to many), the state is reigning in on subsidies for both airports as it recently passed its austerity bill for the next two years, which would trim millions in state aid, across the board.  This was one of the main reasons why Cirrus is pulling the plug on its services between Erfurt and Munich. With major airlines pulling out, Thuringia is finding itself in a very difficult situation attracting passengers to to area and may have to rely on the private sector to keep the airports running if it ever wants to stay competitive with its aforementioned counterparts, let alone the railway companies also  serving passengers in the state- mainly Die Bahn . Apart from Leipzig-Halle, Magdeburg and Nuremberg, which are by train 1, 2, and 4 hours from Erfurt respectively, with international flights no longer available in Thuringia, one will have to travel to either Frankfurt/Main or Berlin (Tegel), each located 3 hours by train. The one with the most to lose is Altenburg because of its location to Leipzig. While it could still serve local services to some of the nearest cities in the eastern part of the country, it may not be able to compete with its counterpart from Erfurt, and unless other airlines offer services to this small airport, one could see the facility fold in the next months or years.  It may take a year to a year and a half to find out how the austerity package combined with the recent pull-outs will have an impact on not only the two airports but Thuringia in general, and that will take more than Pope Benedikt XVI’s visit to Erfurt to resuscitate the region.

Link: http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/mitte-west-thueringen/flughafen136.html ; http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/mitte-west-thueringen/hintergrundflughafen100.html; http://blog.leipzig-zeitgeist.de/2011/02/01/regional-flight-services-withdrawn-from-altenburg/

 

Museumberg on the hill on Flensburg's west side: Possible candidate for cuts- photo taken in April 2011

Flensburg’s Cultural Scene Under the Knife
The city of Flensburg prides itself not only on its multicultural diversity (partly because of the Danish minority living there) but also its fine arts, as it has two libraries, two orchestras, the state theater, and many others. Thanks to the austerity package passed by the state parliament in nearby Kiel, which would provide savings of up to 6 million Euros, cuts and mergers are now foremost on the minds of many Flensburgers, as the cultural scene will receive less funding from the state.  Examples of how cuts will affect the cultural scene include: merging the city library with the Danish library, having only one orchestra (both have had 231 events attracting over 34,000 visitors this year) and cutting fine arts programs, whose contracts run out in 2012. While no plans have been etched in stone, there have been protests against such measures and it is unknown how these cuts will affect the city in general. But represents a classic example of what is being seen throughout all of Germany, as the federal and state governments are tightening their belts for leaner times ahead.

Link: http://www.shz.de/artikel/article//spar-keule-kreist-ueber-der-kulturszene.html?cHash=b4bc9fd19d&no_cache=1&sword_list[0]=kultur&sword_list[1]=flensburg

More Trains and More Space, Please!

A busy and chaotic scene at Hamburg Central Station. Taken on 31 July on the busiest day of the summer season as many people took to the highways and tracks to head to their vacation destination.

 

Here is a sight that I hope that I will never see again: An ICE train departing Hamburg enroute to Copenhagen becomes overcrowded the second the doors open. You try and find a seat you had reserved at a train station in Jena three weeks before, only to find that it is occupied by a mother with two children. It is not a problem considering the fact that the announcer informed the people waiting at the platform that reservations made on the train were considered null and void. That would make a world of sense if learned that all schools in Germany were out for the summer and that  every family with their dog or cat would hit the road or track for their destinations to the Alps, Turkey, or parts of Scandanavia. However the situation becomes unbearable when people are standing side by side in the aisle and on the seats and too close together, resembling a typical ride on the Tokyo subway. To relieve the congestion, the conductor of the train forces the people to take the Regional Express train to Lübeck, which is also the stop on the ICE. It makes sense for only a short time, but does not alleviate the problem when you see a person who makes his spot in one of the closets next to the Bord Restaurant, sitting on top of his luggage. When asked whether he comfortable in that very narrow encasement, he replies with “At least I can sit.”
There are two pet peeves I have with the German Railways (Die Bahn). The first is its customer unfriendliness, especially when it comes to parents with children (please see my article on Single and Business Bahn). Others would disagree with me and say that trains arriving late would be their pet peeve. In a way I would agree if I was one of those commuters going to work at the university as an English lecturer and had an early morning class at 8:30 in the morning, meaning I have to be off to work at 7:00 in the morning in order to make it on time. However, a delay may work as a blessing if there is something very important to do for work before a certain deadline.
There is the other pet peeve which both the Germans and I would have a fun time talking about and that is overcrowded trains. No matter where you go, which train you use (ICE, InterCity or Regional Services), what time of year you travel by train, or what you have for luggage or people travelling with you, Die Bahn has a chronic problem with overcrowding trains. And no matter how hard they try to alleviate the problem, it seems that the problem has worsened within the last five to ten years because of the preference for trains over automobiles- and this goes beyond the increasing price for gas and compulsory automobile inspections taken annually.
If we look at the train demographics for a second, we can see two main north-south arteries (Munich to Berlin and Basel to Hamburg via Frankfurt (Main), three east-west arteries (Dresden to Frankfurt (Main), Berlin to Cologne via Magdeburg and Dusseldorf and Passau/Vienna to Basel via Munich, Ulm and Stuttgart), plus numerous important blood vessels going to key cities, like Cologne from Frankfurt, Copenhagen/Flensburg from Hamburg, Rostock from Berlin and Kaiserslautern/Saarbrücken from Frankfurt(Main).  If a major shortcoming was to take place, such as a storm shutting down the stretch, a train stalling due to a malfunctioning airconditioner, or even a delay of 20 minutes due to overcrowding because of people getting on or off the train (all of which have occurred countless times), then the situation is like a person having a massive heart attack with minutes away from keeling over and expiring if help is not sought in blitzschnell speed. When that happens, pretty much everyone suffers, regardless of whether a passenger misses a flight to Africa, or misses an important meeting with clients and his job is therefore on the line, or if he misses an exam for one of the subjects at the university and he fails the course.  If one lives in Germany as long as I have (twelve years come September 2011), then he/she will have been late at least twice a month- one of which would have consequences as far as meeting deadlines and making appointments are concerned.
The hardest hit areas are the stretches starting in Munich heading north: one heads to Hamburg via Nuremberg, Würzburg, Frankfurt (Main), Göttingen and Hannover; the other heads to Berlin via Nuremberg, Jena and Leipzig. Barring the landscape the two lines have to go through (in particular the latter stretch as it has to go through mountains between Nuremberg and Jena), when boarding the train- in particular the InterCity and ICE, it is always full and despite reservations head of time, there is no guarantee one can sit down in his reserved seat unless he is as aggressive as Happy Gilmore. And when the seat is reserved, then one has to deal with a lack of space as his passenger sitting next to him also needs space to breathe.  The worst is when having luggage and one has no choice but to place them either on the steps or in five different areas of the train. This has occurred with me many times when travelling along this stretch heading to Flensburg and recently to Copenhagen to catch my flight to the USA. If you count the other persons who are travelling with you and are really agitated at the overcrowding, then you can be sure of some potential fireworks going off right there….
Fortunately, measures are being taken to ensure that travelling by train is easier. First and foremost, new tracks are being laid so that one set is designated for ICE service and the other for regional train service. This was done with a stretch between Freiburg (Breisgau) and Karlsruhe and has alleviated the overcrowding a bit. On the Frankfurt-Hamburg route, some stretches are being built north of Göttingen as well as in the metro areas of Hannover and south of Hamburg even as this article is being written.  Another is constructing newer, faster stretches so that passengers can reach their destination quicker and more comfortably. While that has worked on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route between Göttingen and Würzburg, this is being done with the new route between Berlin and Munich, detouring through Ilmenau, Erfurt and Halle (Saale) enroute to Leipzig.  However one has to take into consideration such projects should not be done at the expense of sacrificing original routes, as is the plan by Die Bahn with the new route being constructed- after 2017 no ICEs will pass through Jena and its neighbor to the north, Naumburg (Saale).  Instead both routes should be open and the two types of services (InterCity and ICE) should take turns using the two routes, while respecting the other available services at the same time. This has been done in Hesse with the routes connecting Frankfurt and Cologne as well as the stretch between Mannheim and Karlsruhe. For the stretch between Frankfurt and Cologne, there are two routes one can take: the ICE route via Limburg and Montabaur  and the InterCity/ICE route via Coblence. For the other, one can go straight to Karlsruhe from Mannheim or take the route through Heidelberg and Heilbronn with ICE. Why should it not work for the two stretches going through the state of Thuringia? It would be a win-win situation for Die Bahn as well as the cities of Erfurt and Jena.
This brings me up to two suggestions that are worth considering to ensure more efficiency and less hassles for passengers. Apart from building new stretches and ensuring that the old ones maintain their services to the customers, one should consider utilizing stretches that are less travelled and used by regional services. There one could add some long-distance services to the routes to ensure that passengers have the same satisfaction in service as the ones travelling along the heavily travelled routes. The other is building more trains and reinventing/ reusing types of trains for use on the least travelled routes. While Die Bahn is working on building more InterCity trains to replace the ones that have serving passengers for 20-30 years, the success of the ICE-diesel trains connecting Hamburg and Denmark via Lübeck and Flensburg should force the German train concern to reconsider the idea after they discontinued the service between Dresden and Nuremberg via Bayreuth in 2003. While that stretch is rife for the reintroduction in the ICE-diesel, the stretches between Chemnitz and Göttingen via Gera, Jena, and Mühlhausen and between Cottbus and Berlin are examples of many where the ICE diesel trains could benefit the people in those areas.
The overcrowding of trains and the sometimes overutilization of the routes is a sign that more and more people are using the trains and leaving the cars at home. It is understandable because of the high gas prices combined with the taxes and annual compulsory inspections that have to be paid. Therefore Die Bahn has to react accordingly to accommodate the increasing numbers, even if it means having to put more trains on the existing routes and build new ones so that one will not have to deal with the pet peeve of overcrowding and being forced to stand for long stretches. More trains and better service is better, even if trains come more often and have to keep to a slower speed limit. Passengers will understand and plan accordingly. It is better than finding a place to sit for three hours  at any cost, which was the case with the passenger who sat on his suitcase in the small closet on the ICE to Copenhagen.

Thanks for telling us how to drive, (….)!

It is a site that none of us wanted to see after 2008, the year of the economic collapse. At about this time last year, we were dealing with $4 a gallon gas in a time span between Easter and Labor Day, with some cities dealing with prices at or over $5/gallon, like Chicago, New York, and Dallas. It was a site where everyone was fighting the windmills in cutting costs, just so we could keep the cars in the garages as often and as long as possible. We took whatever forms of public transportation needed if we didn’t have a bicycle. We focused on vacations that were more local and did not even bother with a trip to places far and away. And last but not least, since the oil prices went as far as $147 a barrel, resulting in prices of other commodities spiking as well, we had to go on a diet in terms of our shopping habits, as everything was way too expensive- food included.

While prices did go back down to $2.50/gallon by the middle of last year, guess what?  Have a look at the picture below:

Photo taken by Kari Lucin of the Worthington Daily Globe

 

 

Yep, gas prices are back on the rise again, and this time, there seems to be no stopping the trend. We’ve seen gas prices increase by an average of 70 cents a gallon since this Christmas and it would not be surprising if the entire US faces $4/gallon gas by the time Memorial Day comes around. Already, six states have broken the mark with many more yet to follow, including Minnesota (where the photo was taken). By the time July comes around, travellers will be dealing with prices never seen before- $4.50 to even $5.50/gallon gas!  There is no doubt in the minds of many that many highways will be at half-full capacity at the most when this happens.

If you look at the European shores now, a lot of Americans would feel a lot of sympathy if they saw how much we usually pay on average- that is if the situation is normal and not what it is right now. It is usual to pay 1.30 Euro/Liter unleaded gasoline in Germany, and at a time back in 2006, diesel was less than that. Converting the figures into the English measurements, that would mean about $7 a gallon. However, as you can see in the picture below, we’re also feeling your pain. While travelers normally pay more for gasoline than in the US, gas prices are skyrocketing to levels never seen before in modern history, even though the country invests more in other forms of infrastructure, like passenger rail and busses.

 

Typical gas prices in Germany- TODAY! Photo taken by the author.

 

 

So who do we have to blame for all this? Many people would blame Moamar Gaddafi in Libya for torturing his  people through a civil war, something that the allied troops are trying to put an end to by toppling his regime. That would be a first reaction given the fact that the country has been supplying 20% of the world’s supply of oil. But other countries in northern Africa and the Middle East have been trying to keep up with the growing demand for oil plus Big Oil has been working on finding new supplies. We can blame Big Oil for dictating the gas prices and for quashing other forms of alternative energy, like hydrogen cells, wind, geothermal, and even solar energy. Highly conclusive argument since it has been destroying the environments around the world with reckless oil drilling, and despite regulations passed by the Obama administration and other governments to restrict deep water drilling, in light of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the companies are finding ways to circumvent the laws through perverted measures, like cozying up with the politicians.

But what about us?  Perhaps we as a society should rethink the way we have been using energy resources and not pay attention to the external influences that have been governing our way of life for at least three decades. In the past three decades, we have been consumed by all kinds of stuff that we have been told what to do or what to buy and not think about the long-term consequences of our actions. Whenever there is an SUV that is big enough to fit eight people and eight cupholders, we buy it without knowing the consequences of using it (namely paying more for gas and maintenance). Instead of borrowing a cup of brown sugar to make a sweet potato casserole, we commute 30 km to the nearest supermarket to purchase a package.  If a highway is too narrow and a bridge too light for traffic, we replace it with a six lane freeway and a bridge that is bland but serves as its only function: to be 100% “free of maintenance,” not knowing that it would encourage more driving, more wear and tear, and in the end more money for maintenance. Yet we still continue this process as if there is no tomorrow, and it is not surprising that we are all in a fix that may no longer possible to break out of.

End result? We are cutting back on what we enjoy the most, like photography tours, long distance travelling to various exotic places, and running separate errands individually, embracing our neighbors like we knew them for many years (even though we don’t know them at all) taking advantage of whatever public transportation is available and doing some things differently in order to cut costs wherever needed. In one case, an American student living in Germany recently decided to fly from Copenhagen to Minnesota instead of flying out of Frankfurt as flight costs are much cheaper in the Danish capital, a city that is worth seeing and accessible by train. While the last part may be a bit crazy, these measures show the willingness to people all over the world that there are alternatives to using the car which costs a lot of money. It’s more of a question of how to do it without hurting their own interests, and this is exceptionally hard, given the current circumstances.

While we may have seen gas prices fall in light of the economic crash in 2008, it is highly unlikely that this will repeat itself again. And like the Europeans who have done this already, we need to rethink the way we travel, and politicians need to rethink the concept of expanding public transportation, instead of cutting funding for many projects, as more people are demanding alternatives to the car. It may be expensive at first, but in the long term, it will save households much money by reducing the costs for travelling by car, and families will benefit from these alternatives in many different ways.

It is highly unlikely that the debate over high gas prices will be the focus of the next elections in 2012 (US) and 2013 (Germany), but it will hang around the chambers of the two houses of parliament, to a point where politicians will be so annoyed by it that they will investigate this and ask the public about htis topic. Nine times out of ten, they will be due for a shock…..

 

Note: Thanks to Kari Lucin for providing the photo of the gas prices in the US at present.