European walking norms, worries about accessibility, with added bonus: statue of baby eating ogre


I’m my way home from Berne, Switzerland, writing this post in the Zurich airport. I cancelled some research travel this year, see recent post on rough times and tough choices. But this conference was one I couldn’t miss. It’s on family ethics, my main research area and I’m one of the invited speakers. I was there talking about the moral significance of extended family relationships.

While in Switzerland, I had the opportunity to think about getting around in European cities and how much walking is part of one’s everyday routine.

The directions conference organizers sent were amusingly clear, under “How to arrive at your hotel” they explained in excellent detail how to walk from the train station to the conference hotel. It should take no more than fifteen minutes, read our instructions. There are taxis in Berne, they said, but the university would be unable to reimburse us for costs incurred. Also, there is a tram but it would take as long as walking. Further explanations followed about buying “short distance” tickets.

They were right, of course. It was a perfectly pleasant fifteen minute walk even with bags. Once again, welcome to Europe, land of stairs and cobblestones, I was happy to have my back pack rather than a suitcase with wheels.

It helped that the temperatures were around zero. Felt like springtime. No polar vortex here.

Directions to the university were similarly laid out. In that case it was a very pleasant twenty minute walk.

This was all to my liking. There are very few cars in Berne centre. I wasn’t sure if they were forbidden in the downtown area, around the historical, medieval city square, or just rare. But bicycles bicycles everywhere. Signs to bike parking, lots full of bicycles, and then  “bicycles forbidden” signs to which were attached, you guessed it, hundreds of bicycles.

I love this about Europe. It feels right to me, like how I want to live.

I love the idea and the practise of building movement into our everyday lives. The idea of driving to the gym to walk on a treadmill must seem very odd to residents of these walkable cities. And frankly, it seems odd to me too.

But I have this nagging worry about those who aren’t so mobile. What do people in wheelchairs do? Or people with walkers for whom my pleasant twenty minute walk would take hours?

I have a greater awareness of the difficulties these days as I spend time pushing a relative in her chair. Berne’s  cobblestones might not be so picturesque then.

I’ve had similar thoughts about Parisian subways. I love the steep stairs, not an escalator to be seen, but surely there must be other options?

If you know anything about accessibility in Europe, let me know. I’m curious.

Oh, and you can read about the child eating ogre of Berne here.

Cheerful statue of ogre eating small children















6 thoughts on “European walking norms, worries about accessibility, with added bonus: statue of baby eating ogre

  1. A paraplegic friend of mine writes a blog about her life in Helsinki (it’s in English: http://imrollingaround.wordpress.com/), it’s about accessibility among other things. I know it’s not exactly a pictoresque medieval town, but in Europe nonetheless, albeit in the northern extremes. And I guess we do walk a lot and use our bicycles (at least in the summer) for moving around.

  2. Hi Samantha, Your concerns about accessibility are accurate. Europeans seem not to have given much thought to this until very recently, and even now I dont know how helpful their actions are. But.The Paris Metro has started incorporating elevators in stations wherever possible, and in new lines and stations. There may be information on accessible stations on the web site for the transport system. I havent looked at it. Also, I notice that at most corners in the city the sidewalks have wheelchair friendly ramps like those on campus. The national library is a huge maze with challenging entries, but there is ramp access and elevator access that includes main entry and another that descends to the research library. This is a relatively new building (erected in the late 1990s). In Italy things depend on the city I remember that Perugia has staged elevators or escalators for people to move up and down the steep hills. I had an Italian student in Visual Arts born without arms who does everything with her feet when I asked her why she came to our department when there are well-known art programs in Italy, she talked about big heavy doors with no assistance, about people who see the physically disabled as mentally disabled it was heart breaking. She has returned to Italy where she has had a tremendous impact in raising social consciousness including writing a memoir (published by Mondadori perhaps the most significant in the country) she is also a world class dancer who was featured in the opening event at the para-olympics when the games were in Italy. Such an amazing, strong and appealing woman. So Id say that things are changing in Europe but there is a long way to go. And I think Prague would be impossible for anyone with mobility problems.

    Glad that the conference in Berne went well for you.


  3. True the lovely, historic more compact cities /towns in Europe are more accessible for walking, cycling, etc. But yes, we must pay attention to transit (including kneeling buses), escalators, elevators for the whole of the transit system, public buildings..and private residences.

    We don’t hear much of the movement as I noticed in the 1980’s to 1990’s on accessible buildings. Wonder why…? But then I was a working a hospital for 3 years that specialized in rehabilitation medicine for spinal cord injured adults.

    As for maintaining an active life, that includes walking, etc. / active transportation, it also means choosing to live in a home that is within 15 min. to public transit, grocery store, some key services…

    and in the end, it will pay off since homes close to such services over time, appreciate in value, not the other way around.

    My partner’s mother did walk for grocery shopping until her mid 80’s in Peterborough, Ontario …even in winter. She did have a friend who occasionally drove her to grocery store.

    I do have memory of her walking with her walker up a hill 6% grade in downtown Vancouver from independent living apartment. It was 1 km. long but she was proud to have done it. My partner walked slowly behind her..

    She only gained weight when she became wheelchair bound in nursing home last 2 years of her life.

    My father who has prostate cancer gave up his driver’s license this year @85 yrs. Up to this time, he did walk 10 min. to bus stop, where he later met my doctor-sister who took him to the cancer hospital to testing. He wanted to do this mini trip himself. Now he can’t because of failing neurolocomotor abilities.

    May I add: My parents live in mid-town Toronto, 2 blocks from a chain grocery store and close to transit bus and then subway line. They moved from the suburbs in Kitchener…over 15 years ago. They made a very clear chose to live close to services, transit, and shops.

  4. My 73-year-old mother went to Europe (Germany, France) on vacation last summer, with my sister and my uncle (her 60-year-old brother). My mom is on the obese side and was never an athlete but she does walk for an hour almost every day at home. She found the cobblestones and the stairs very difficult to negotiate. The Paris Metro in particular was terrible for her, since there are lots of little steps up and down, so they just took taxis everywhere. Although the idea of walking and cycling everywhere appeals to those of us who have no mobility issues, I think the older parts of European cities have to start to devise transport for those of limited mobility.

  5. I visited Berne as a young kid, and that statue is indelibly burned in my brain. It terrified and transfixed me, and I think I was probably perfectly behaved for several days after seeing it.

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