Switzerland: Where The Grass Truly Is Greener

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157834402A few weeks back, laid out some initial impressions of Switzerland after about a week of travel by foot, bike and train through Lausanne, the Berner Oberland and Luzern. What stuck out the most to me was the prioritization of pedestrians through walking signs and street design, not to mention Switzerland’s phenomenal transportation network that enhances the pedestrian’s lifestyle rather than limit it as auto-oriented planning has in the United States.

Everything here seems too good to be true. The trains almost always run on time, drivers err on the side of caution by stopping in advance for pedestrians, cyclists feel safe enough to ride without a helmet, and everything is spotless as if Mary Poppins herself just flew through. Even while drinking a beer alongside one of Switzerland’s ubiquitous fountains in one of their equally ubiquitous parks, my fiancée and I noticed that the boulder we were sitting on was in pristine condition. We wondered if it was fake until seeing a bit of vegetation growing in the cracks.

Needless to say, the challenge I presented to myself of finding flaws in Swiss society has been difficult if not impossible. Any criticism we could muster felt like snooty nitpicking, not so much a worthwhile thought. Even now I cannot recall a single instance of said nitpicking, because to complain in Switzerland feels forced.

Chatting with Diccon Bewes, author of Swiss Watching and Slow Train To Switzerland, during a walk around Bern cemented the fact that the grass truly is greener here. Great for Switzerland and its people, but my experiences here have left me sad for my home country that teaches everyone from grade school on that we are the greatest nation on Earth and God’s favorite beings to carry out His will. Meanwhile, our debt continues to skyrocket, schools are failing, income disparity is rising along with poverty, our infrastructure is falling apart, and we cannot even afford to care for veterans after spending trillions to send them to war.

Suffice it to say, I would rather be poor in Switzerland than in the United States.

Forcing Consensus

After walking us around Bern’s many parks and giving us the history of its city center – a medieval UNESCO Heritage Site where modern trams now snake along the cobblestones – we sat down for a drink where I tried to pick for flaws in Swiss society and to see if I have been merely suffering from a grass is greener complex. Alas, my search indeed felt forced and came up largely empty handed.

First, in regards to Switzerland’s transportation network, Bewes tells me that the Swiss routinely vote to support funding of public transport. This sentiment was verified by Julie Armin, a Swiss weathergirl in Lugano, who noted a recent ballot measure that passed to allow for more transit funding in the Ticino canton – Switzerland’s Italian-speaking region.

He also explains that Switzerland has a law in place mandating that the public transport network must connect every permanent town in the country. In other words, nobody in Switzerland is forced into car ownership, which here can cost 20,000 francs ($22,300 USD) for the smallest of vehicles. Instead, you can spend 3,000 francs ($3,300 USD) annually for a Swiss pass that gives you unlimited access to the network. That means buses, trains, trams and ferries. Only tourist cable cars and gondolas will cost you, but just half-price with the pass.

None of this is to say that there are not those in Switzerland who prefer cars or political parties who favor increased spending on motorways. They just happen to be in the minority. And because of Switzerland’s direct democracy form of governance, they will never be in the majority. No party can be, in fact. This forces consensus among the 13 parties, lest they anger the public and force a referendum. Ultimately Switzerland’s practice of direct democracy has kept society largely equitable and out of debt – amazing what government can spend money on when not perpetually at war.

Libertarian Leanings

Struggling to find err in the Swiss way of living, I ask Bewes if any Swiss travel to the United States, see our expansive (and crumbling) highway network that cuts through urban areas, wishing they had something in similar in Switzerland.

“No,” was the short answer.

“A lot of Swiss people cannot understand the American mindset,” he says as another tram passes by. “It’s seen as important to help people get on their feet,” noting Switzerland’s generous safety nets in addition to the transport network.

Some Americans might think this is the makeup of a socialist society. They indeed have regulations on the marketplace, such as no Sunday shopping in order to allow small businesses to compete with corporate chains. However, Bewes describes Swiss society as Libertarian.

Open container is the easiest example. Many Swiss across the spectrum of age and socioeconomic class can be seen enjoying a canned lager at the park with friends or on the train. But the transportation network might be the best example of Switzerland’s Libertarian leanings. After all, you can walk, bike, take transport or drive to almost any destination in Switzerland. You get to make the decision.

Swiss Learning

In a tragic irony, it is some of the more conservative corners of the United States where options are most limited. Communities with no sidewalks that hinder walking or entire counties with absolutely no public transport as road-widening funding continues to skyrocket. Sounds like big government, social engineering to me!

The difference is that the Swiss acknowledge what government can and cannot do. They do not want government peering into their personal affairs or making too many decisions for them, but they also realize that no individual can, for instance, create a transportation network that moves millions of people efficiently. The result is one of the happiest nations on Earth with no debt and low poverty. Poverty that does exist pales in comparison to the growing inequality gap within the United States.

Many Americans inherently refuse to compare a massive nation like the United States with another country smaller than many of its own states. However, an unwillingness to learn from other nations simply because it is not an exact replica strikes me as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Urban planners can learn from Swiss cities. American states can learn from the Swiss healthcare system. Perhaps most importantly, we can all afford to learn how to live within our means without forgetting about those less fortunate.

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at joebaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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