April 22, 2010 10:10 AM
As far as I know Delta Flight 249 was the first flight to resume the Amsterdam to Detroit run since the Icelandic volcano erupted last week. The passengers let out a cheer when the plane touched down yesterday afternoon and the flight attendant announced with a choke in her voice, "Welcome back to the United States of America."
It was a little emotional because there were moments over the weekend when we weren't very sure when we'd see home again. Our group of civic leaders from Madison had been in Europe studying bicycle facilities and policies when the volcano erupted. A concern about how the ash might affect jet engines grounded all flights from northern Europe for about four days and kept us across the Atlantic for a total of twelve days. There were times when we weren't sure how or when we'd get home. We made contingencies to be there for the rest of the week at least and set up a make-shift office in one of our hotel rooms so we could stay in touch with events back home. Finally, test flights indicated that the threat from the ash was small if a threat at all, and flights resumed on Wednesday.
It's good to be back home, but the trip and the unexpected turn of events gave me a chance to think a little bit about being an American in the world today. Every time I travel outside of our country, I get a sense of our responsibility to the rest of the world. We do some things right and some things wrong, but whatever we do we are the 800 pound gorilla in the room. When we sneeze, the world catches a cold.
As regards the topic we were there for, consider this fact appropriate for Earth Day. With about 5% of the world's population, we consume about 20% of its energy and produce about the same amount of its manmade greenhouse gasses. With out- sized consumption comes out-sized impacts and out-sized responsibilities to fix the problem. Because the transportation sector is the biggest part of the problem, bikes can play a sizable role in the solution. In Madison four out of 100 trips are by bike. In some of the cities we visited, it's 40 out of 100. And every one of those trips is absolutely carbon free.
I had a nice chat with my seat mate, a Dutch citizen, on that return flight. He talked about how his family used bikes. I learned that the Dutch, like Americans, value single family homes. He has a wife, two kids, a house in the suburbs and a car. He doesn't hate cars and in fact drives most days. But he and his family integrate the bike into their everyday lives, using it to get to work, school, shopping and recreation. He hadn't thought much about what percentage of his weekly trips were by bike, but he thought that 4 in ten was probably on the low side. He was aware of all the benefits of bikes, but in the last analysis he said his family bikes because, "it's just fun." And then he went on to say something that really struck me as an American. "It's a sense of freedom," he said. That's exactly what so many Americans think about their cars.
And that's the point. Good transportation policy isn't about being against anything. It's about being for freedom of a safe choice for any way we want to travel.
I travelled home with new ideas and a greater sense of responsibility about our place in the world aboard Delta Flight 249. After the plane landed and the cheers from my fellow Americans died down, my seatmate grinned at me and said, "Welcome home." I thanked him, but thought to myself that the world is an interconnected and a really pretty small place and that we're all home wherever we are.