Beer and Transport in Europe

(But not at the same time!)

Most of these pages are about biomes and natural ecosystems, but I did want to take an opportunity to introduce American students in particular to some different ways of thinking about getting around - and about beer.  Beer is biological, but transport and its relation to biomes is a bit more tenuous.  As you may realize, many of our natural ecosystems are under siege, and a large part of the pressure we put on our ecosystems comes from the habitat we destroy to accommodate our houses, businesses, and the transportation networks that connect them.  I grew up in a variety of housing situations from urban residential to rural to suburban and have lived in single-family houses and apartments of various sizes, and in communities from the very small to the very large (Los Angeles).  Many American college students, however, have had little experience beyond the suburbs, and the purpose of this page is to give those students a contrary view of how things might be arranged.  I've chosen some images from Europe (Asia might be a bit too much of a shock) not because Europeans do cities right, but because they do them differently - and the idea is to pick up the best ideas from other places.

Part 1 - Land Use


Here are 3 aerial views showing rural land use in 3 different countries.  To the left is a picture of Ohio, typical of rural land use in the midwestern United States.  Note the many rural homes, each one with its own lot.  The houses and farms are scattered more or less uniformly over the landscape.  This means that each house and farm must be serviced by a road, and the roads in their grid-like pattern are apparent.  Contrast this to France, below.  The houses are concentrated into a village, and the fields surround the village. This reduces the need for roads.  A similar situation exists in Belgium, below left, although in the distance encroaching suburban development can be seen.



These aerial photos of 4 cities (clockwise from above: Paris, San Francisco, Chicago and Phoenix) are telling in several ways.  The problem with American cities is not sprawl per se - San Francisco and Chicago are as densely laid out as Paris (perhaps even more so as a good part of Paris is limited to low-rise construction as a result of geology, history and law).  But, notice in the photos of the American cities, particularly San Francisco, how much of the space is allocated to the automobile (and San Francisco and Chicago do have relatively decent - for American cities - mass-transit. 

Now look at Phoenix.  One of the older cities in the country, much of its growth has occurred in the past 50 years and has been heavily influenced by the automobile.  Without the Seine or San Francisco Bay or Lake Michigan as an anchor, Phoenix sprawls in a mostly grid-like fashion across the landscape.  Buildings are low, mostly single story, and housing is mostly single-family residential.  This spreads out housing and commerce and makes no sense except in a society where personal transportation is cheap.  We won't even go into the watered lawns in the middle of the desert; click here to go to the desert biome page and a photo of a turfgrass (sod) farm in Phoenix! 

In the following sections, we will look at some European cities and specifically at some of the urban engineering that makes those cities more pedestrian friendly and more amenable to mass transit - and thus making automobiles less of a necessity.  Certainly many American cities have some of these elements - New York has a great subway system as well as regional trains, for instance, but in terms of putting cars, mass transit and pedestrians on an even footing the average European city seems to do it more seamlessly.  

Part 2 - City Streets and Getting Around

In the photo at upper left you can see a street scene from Brussels, Belgium.  This is a fairly main street in a residential part of the city.  In the distance you can see some high-rise housing (and there is a commercial district at the bottom of the hill).  More importantly, note how the cars, bike path (red pavement) and sidewalk are all separated - and the fact that the differences in pavement would be apparent even to blind pedestrians - nice touch! Above, one of the main thoroughfares in Brussels.  At the extreme right is a sidewalk, then a local car lane, then tram lines, then a shaded sidewalk, and finally the street.  On the other side of the street is another tree lawn which separates a narrow lane with parking from the main street.  In no place are pedestrians close to relatively high-speed car traffic; likewise car traffic in the central lanes can proceed rapidly without the disruption of pedestrians, bikes and other cars pulling into traffic. A similar street scene in Brussels is shown to the left.  Note again how pedestrian, tram and local traffic are segregated from each other and the "express traffic" - still, despite the width of the street it is not intimidating to cross as there are numerous safe zones for pedestrians as they cross and no need to cross in a single leap.  The residential street in Brussels, below left, is more similar to what one might see in an American city; if it weren't for the strange license plates and the absence of pickup trucks one might think the picture was taken in the US.   The street scene in Paris (below) shows that not all big city problems are avoided in Europe; there is still congestion and parking is always an issue.  Still, the mixed-use neighborhood with commercial shops and restaurants on the first floor and apartments above make it possible to leave the car parked while running many errands.

Above: Parking in Paris.  Note the size of the cars.  How many pickups would fit in this space?

Above - an 8-lane highway in Paris, just before it goes underground to allow for a park aboveground.  Actually, the cyclists are creating a ninth lane, though I doubt that it is officially endorsed. Right: small cars rule in big cities where parking is a premium.  I drove the car in the upper picture and it held its own on the autobahn (not that it would outrun a Lamborghini, but it was fast enough to stay ahead of the trucks, and that's all that really matters).  The really tiny cars can park perpendicular to the curb, thus getting several cars in the space one regular car would take up (and leaving more space for people, trees, crops, cows, ponds and meadows).  Some people object to small cars on safety concerns, but if the roads were filled with vehicles like the ones on the Paris highway (instead of Hummers and RAM Diesel 4x4's) then everyone would be safer, not just the chosen few who have the money to buy the big vehicles and the lack of common decency to think about anyone else's safety.  Oh, and if they were all getting 30-40 MPG instead of 12 we could all afford to buy gas, too.  Below left - Clermont, Belgium, a small country town which has managed to accommodate both the automobile and a beautiful architectural heritage.  Place needs a Wal-Mart, though.

In the parking lot of the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg I saw this innovative means of greening the landscape.  Small (but quick-growing) sycamore-type trees are planted between the rows of parked cars.  Their limbs are trained out on wires strung across the parking lot.  The limbs grow along the wires and provide shade.  Note to urban planners from an entomologist: In the US, sycamore trees are commonly afflicted by a number of sap-sucking insects whose sugar-rich exudate will fall on cars parked beneath them.  Not that there's anything wrong with that..

Part 3 - Hop on the Trolley

While busses are fine for mass transit, there is something especially appealing about the trolley (called a tram in Europe), a fixture in many European cities, especially those without subway systems (Brussels has both).  Essentially a very light railroad, drawing energy from overhead wires, trolley lines can be laid out on their own right-of-way (above) or right down busy city streets (above left).  When they have their own right-of-way they can usually achieve faster speeds than a bus.  Trolleys are adaptable even to very old city streets, as the trolley to the left (in Strasbourg) demonstrates.  Compared to busses they are also very quiet; they do not belch diesel smoke and fine particulate pollutants, and they are efficient in that one driver can move many passengers.  In the US, many cities had trolley systems; most of these were removed after the second World War.  This was a result of both passive and active moves by the automakers; passive in that the flood of cars drew away ridership and active in that trolley lines and regional passenger rail was bought out by the automakers and shut down.

Part 4 - Underground

For many, the sign of a true mass-transit system is a well planned and run underground.  By moving the trains underground, city streets are freed up for pedestrians and cars.  Much of the noise is also removed, and since the trains draw on electricity, the pollution associated with the transit is moved outside the city (not good if you live in the country, but there are fewer lungs out there to be contaminated).  The Metro system in Paris, shown here, is typical; electrically powered trains arrive and depart from underground stations every few minutes.  The stations are well sited, close to tourist and employment centers, as well as linked to regional trains and to the airports (one of the tickets reproduced above was good for trains, the Metro, busses and trolleys, another was good for the Metro and a train to the airport).  

The biggest problem for such systems is to have enough capacity for morning and evening rush hours, and then to maintain a convenient schedule through the rest of the day and late enough at night to keep people out of their cars. Of course, it is impossible (or at least very expensive) to build an underground system in some areas due to local geology. 

Part 5 - The Train!..... The Train!....

Europe has an extensive -and surprisingly well-integrated - passenger train system.  The integration is all the more amazing when one considers that until recently each country set it own standards for things like trains, rail spacing, rail routes, electricity, etc.  It's amazing that all of the countries involved could have cooperated to the point where a network of passenger trains crossed the continent and linked the many different countries.  With the coming of the European Union and the end of national checkpoints, the train system is even more convenient.  Above, you can see one of the typical regional rail stations in a suburb of Brussels.  The regional rail allows commuters to get to work in the larger cities from the suburbs and from outlying towns.  Above right, the inside of the trains is modern and resembles the inside of an airplane, except with a lot more legroom!  Right, a "regular" electric locomotive used for an inter-city line (Brussels to Strasbourg).  Below, locomotives for the "TGV" (train à grande vitesse - train with great speed) which can reach speeds of 300 km/hr (almost 200 mph).  These trains connect major cities, particularly in western Europe and the special high-speed lines are being expanded.

The TGV trains are so fast that Air France uses the TGV connection between Paris and Brussels as one of its air routes.  Rather than fly a plane between these two cities, it merely books its passengers on the trains.  

Left, and below left, are two views of the rail yard at Strasbourg.  A variety of different train types, from regional to international, can be seen in the yard.  In the lower picture are the platforms where the passengers embark and disembark.  The terminal is to the right, mostly out of the picture, although several construction cranes are visible.  These cranes were part of a large construction project working to ready the Strasbourg terminal for TGV train operation scheduled to begin in June, 2007.  Below is the view along the track from a "regular" train.

Above:  Two views of the Champagne Valley in France.  The vineyards are on the hillsides; this is where the grapes used to make champagne are grown.  

Part 6 - Two if by Sea

Many of the major cities of Europe (and the eastern US, for that matter) are located on rivers.  Long before automobiles and even trains, rivers provided the only practical way to move heavy or bulk goods.  While trains and trucks have taken over most of the cargo, rivers still play an important role in transportation and modern cities whose founding predates the train were largely built around their rivers. Note the car on the back of the riverboat in the photo above right.

Above, the Seine runs trough Paris and gives it an outlet to the sea. River traffic today includes a lot of boats hauling tourists, but also includes the bulk commodities that the river has moved for hundreds of years.  Above, one such barge moves through the city; the speed limit is for cars, not shipping. To the left and below, the city of Strasbourg was located where the River Ill reaches the Rhine.  The Rhine is one of the major rivers of Europe and separates France and Germany for much of its length.  In Strasbourg, the Ill was heavily canalized to provide water transportation in many parts of the town, and hydropower for tanneries and other industry in some places.

Above: Strasbourg at  night; below; American cities also make use of their rivers; Marietta is a classic river town and the Ohio still carries a considerable amount of freight. 


Part 7 - Walking in Memphis (Strasbourg??)

Above are 3 pictures of Brussels on a "Green Day" when cars are banned from the city streets.  As you can see, with the cars gone, the streets are safe even for toddlers on trikes.  In other places, older parts of the city are simply too narrow for cars, so they are banned.  This creates a good situation for pedestrians and diners alike.  Below left is a picture of the Cathedral square in Strasbourg; this open area is large enough for cars, but they have wisely been banned from this area - and the entire district has relatively few roads open to cars.  Again, this creates an atmosphere more conducive to pedestrians - and even more efficient if you consider the difficulty of parking in a crowded city.  It just becomes easier to walk.  Below right, even windsurfers get into the action on a Green Day in Brussels.

Even the largest cities still have vestiges of the past; above a Belgian draft horse on its way downtown in Brussels; below donkeys and a pony on their way home after entertaining children in a Paris park.  All in all, we are probably better off without draft animals in cities as they were at the turn of the 20th century; the manure and its attendant odor and flies probably made life in a city an olfactory hell.  On the other hand, the oldest form of transportation, walking, never goes out of style.  To the upper right, pedestrians on a narrow street in Maastricht; such streets are navigable by cars and small trucks, but these are restricted to certain early morning and overnight hours.  To the right, a narrow street in Strasbourg.  At night, vendors draw in their sidewalk displays and the street is opened to allow small delivery trucks access to the stores.  During the day, the streets are restricted to pedestrians.  Below right, an open-air market in Brussels.  Note the apartments behind the market; by bringing the goods to the people thousands of individual shopping trips by car are averted.  Below center a market street in Paris where small stores sell a tremendous variety of food (the picture was taken in December).  The street the markets are on is not used for vehicular through traffic; merely delivery vans.  I know - what about the handicapped who can't walk?  I submit they are still better off if the mass-transit is well designed to accommodate them (and it is not in Paris).  If the metro can get you and your wheelchair or scooter into the vicinity, a pedestrian street is much easier to navigate than a crowded sidewalk.

Finally, the Belgians have two additional coping mechanisms to help them deal with congestion in the city.  To the left, standing outside the main Cathedral, is St. Passius, the patron saint of traffic.  To the right, parked on a downtown street, is a vehicle well-designed to deal with city traffic.  

Actually, the vehicle on the right is a Sherman "Jumbo" tank from WWII (the US liberated much of Belgium from the Germans and just about every town has a tank on display).  It's sobering to note that the Sherman "Jumbo" is almost an inch shorter than a Dodge RAM 3500 Laramie Quad Cab 4x4.  At least the tank weighs more (about 10x more, about 84,000 pounds to the lightweight truck at 7,000 lbs), but the tank only has 70 more HP than the truck.  Chrysler does not give the MPG for the truck; the tank got almost 6/10 of a mile per gallon (which might not be a whole lot more than the truck).  If you really need to compensate for other shortcomings the tank may be just the vehicle for you! Interesting that Chrysler, which built the Sherman tanks used to defeat Germany in WWII is now owned by Daimler, a German company.  Just who won that war?

For the even more insecure driver, try the newer Abrams tank (left).  Baby seats and side impact airbags not included. Note: the Abrams is considerably larger than the Sherman (32 vs 21 feet long) and weighs a bit more: 70 tons to the Sherman's 42 tons.  Roads in Germany are posted as to the weight of the tank you can drive across a bridge; obviously the Abrams don't get out much. 

Part 8 - Beer

Finally the beer.  Europeans have a different view of this beverage, arguably one of the first applications of biotechnology by humans.  Beer happens when yeast are used to ferment solutions of grain and hops - the former provides the sugar for the yeast, the latter adds flavor.  We'll come back to that.  In general, Europeans see beer and wine as beverages to be savored, not as vehicles for alcohol delivery (soccer hooligans to the contrary).  As a result, beer and wine are more commonly available and (in some ways) subject to fewer restrictions than in the United States.  For instance, in Strasbourg you can "study" at the Academie de la Biere.  More seriously, the building above right is student housing at the University of Strasbourg - with a beer hall on the first floor!

Germany is famous for its beers; laws in Germany prevent shipping beer more than 30 miles, which protects local breweries and promotes a wide array of beers (and probably keeps prices up, too).  The beer to the left was served up in the Black Forest, along with a slice of Black Forest Cake.  However, our story is set in another well-known center of beer production, Belgium.

In the Belgian countryside, near the border with Germany and The Netherlands (what in Belgium isn't?) lies a stream, the Berwinne.  The valley carved by the stream was so beautiful that it was named "The Valley of God" (Val Dieu).  In that valley in the year 1216 an abbey was founded, and like many of the abbeys in the European countryside the abbey was a completely self-sustaining agricultural enterprise, with the monks growing grain, raising livestock - and brewing beer for cash.  The picture below shows the abbey; the modern brewery is in a wing of the agricultural buildings and is circled in red. 


Above - the Belgian countryside near Val-Dieu and the town of Clermont.

I had an interesting opportunity to tour the operation, as my wife's dad's cousin's daughter's husband is the brewer.  Benoît Humblet, a layman, started the modern brewery in the Abbey in 1997, using recipes found in the archives of the Abbey itself.  

Above left is the main building of the abbey; this is where the monks lived.  The brewery itself, above right, is off to the side in some of the old agricultural buildings of the abbey.  To make the brew, Benoît grinds malted grain to which hot water is added.  This triggers enzymatic activity (Biology!) that breaks the starches of the grains down into sugars (which the yeast can use).  This mixture is then filtered, with the solids (below) being set aside to use as livestock food (as the monks also did - very ecologically enlightened).   The sugary liquid then has hops (left, above) added to it (for flavor) and is allowed to cool to room temperature, at which point the yeast (more Biology!) are added.  Fermentation proceeds for 5 days to a week in a vat such as the one at the left.  The yeast is also recycled, being drained from the bottom of the tank where it collects.  The fermented "beer" now has alcohol, but no CO2 to speak of.  The liquid is chilled and aged for a few weeks, filtered, and a mixture of sugar and yeast is added for a second fermentation.  Beers are then bottled in the brewery ( a picture of the capping apparatus is at the left and the entire bottling machine is at the left below), and stocked in a warm chamber for 3 weeks to ferment again.   During this time, fermentation occurs again and the CO2 that is generated is forced into solution, ready to form the bubbles in the beer's head once the bottle is opened.  The alcohol content can get up to about 12% in this process, which is about the same as wine and just about as high a concentration as yeast can stand (they die in their own wastes, another important ecological lesson put more earthily by an old road foreman I used to work for - "don't @#$% in your own nest G%^@&&$#!").





Above - a beer lover's dream, the warm room at the Abbey brewery.  Here the bottles and kegs sit under warm conditions to complete the second fermentation.  To the right, Benoît Humblet (my wife's dad's cousin's daughter's husband, Jacques Delleur (my wife's dad), and _____ Humblet (my wife's dad's cousin's daughter's husband's son) at the tap of the tasting room of the brewery.  Below right, the author tries his hand at the tap. Below, the final product.  I am not a beer drinker, but this stuff is really good.  As you can see from the labels below, the brewery has 3 main beers, Blond, Brown and Triple; a number of specialty beers are made as well.  In order for Benoît  to be able to use the Abbey's name, he must actually brew the beer on the property, which greatly limits production.  You can learn more about the brewery at Abbaye du Val-Dieu at their website.


One of the raw ingredients for Val-Dieu beer - clean water from the stream Berwinne. It's worth remembering that clean water is essential not only for our health, but for our quality of life itself.