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  • Writer's pictureMichael Huston

Observations from a European Road Trip

One of the more exhilarating road trip experiences, driving between the narrow, sheer cliffs at the entry to Dinant, Belgium.

About a year ago, June of 2019 to be exact, I rented a car with a friend and went on a 10-day, 2,000 mile road trip through western Europe. Along the way, we encountered some beautiful cities and landscapes as we traveled through France, Belgium, Switzerland and Northern Italy. Usually it’s the built environment that I write about, but this post is about the journey, and specifically about touring by car, and the differences I noticed between a European road trip and the ones I frequently do here in the U.S. And like everything else, there are many significant differences.

First, let me go on record as saying that I prefer to travel by rail when touring Europe. But, at least this once, I wanted to travel off the tracks, where we could be a little more spontaneous and have experiences that one might miss if traveling by rail.

A Google Map of our route which adds up to over 2000 miles (not counting the miles where we were lost in Genova and Monaco).

While it’s questionable whether you can draw any definite conclusions from a single road trip, I think there is some merit in at least asking the right questions; why did we see so few accidents and encounter so few traffic jams? I posit some theories behind the observations, but they are only theories open to further investigation. If you’re interested, google it! The observations are listed in no particular order.

In 2000 miles, we did not encounter one accident!

I had to double check with my traveling companion to make sure I had remembered this correctly. Although we almost caused a few accidents, we did not encounter one during our journey. I have no doubt I would have encountered a few on a similar 2,000 mile trip in the U.S. So what’s the difference? I have a few hypotheses:

  • Most cars are manual shifts which require more attentiveness.

  • Depending on the country, drivers adhere to laws about staying in the right lane and only using the left lane for passing. I was repeatedly reminded of this by my Belgian friend that accompanied us for part of the trip.

  • Large trucks are generally prohibited from using the left lanes.

  • Round-abouts, lots of roundabouts! We already know that round-abouts are much safer than a standard intersection and their use in Europe appears to work well to keep traffic moving and minimize collisions.

  • Our European hosts claimed that speeding was strictly enforced by aerial and digital surveillance. I did not try and test the system.

Round-abouts, all around

A particularly memorable, and dizzying, series of round-abouts that we encountered on the three-lane road leading from highway A8 to the edge of Frejus, France. (Diagram by the author over Google.Earth aerial)

Yes again, the round-abouts. I wish I had counted how many we encountered on the entire trip, but alas, I did not. As previously mentioned, they are quite superior to the standard intersection in a rural - non-urban - context. They are generally found on the edges of urban areas and on the off-ramps of highways, but not in more urban areas as they are not pedestrian and bike friendly. The round-abouts do two things well, they reduce the frequency of more dangerous collisions (google it), and they keep traffic moving at reasonable speeds in all directions. Leading to my next observation…

Hardly any traffic jams

OK, maybe we just got lucky. Even though we drove thousands of miles, and in and out of very urban places, we did not encounter many, if any, bumper-to-bumper traffic jams. While I am only drawing from my own experience, here are my hypotheses about why there appears to be less traffic jams on highways and roads:

  • Roundabouts keep the traffic moving – even if slowly – through intersections

  • Fewer accidents mean fewer traffic jambs

  • Less traffic-generating commercial uses along busy corridors.

I have heard of notoriously long traffic jambs along the narrow coast-hugging roads along the French riviera, but we did not encounter any of these even though we were there in the summer months.

A parking garage sits under this splash plaza at the Promenade du Paillon in the heart of Nice, France. (Photo by Michael Huston)

Ample parking in city centers

One of my concerns leading into this trip was whether we were going to be able to drive right into the heart of cities and find parking. Some of our stops were just for a few hours, so we could not rely on hotel parking. As a planner, parking is one of the most frustrating realities of the modern city – you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it (well, you can, but most people think you can’t).

Surprisingly, we found it easy to find public parking in virtually every city that we entered. Typically, there would be digital signs directing the driver to one of several public parking facilities showing the number of spaces available in each. Of course, the parking was not free, but it seemed reasonable given that we were parking in the heart of tourist destinations. Nearly all of the parking was underground. To my astonishment, you can even drive right into super dense and horizontally-challenged Monaco and find parking! The best part, once you are parked, there was no need of a car as the city centers were made for pedestrians.

At left, a well-contained “Autogrill” service area we stopped at just south of Milan. The restaurant spanned over the highway like a bridge. At right, a typical highway exit in Georgia that could be anywhere in the U.S. The highway-oriented commercial development bleeds out into the surrounding area in the form of asphalt-dominated sprawl. (Images from Google.Earth)

Service areas help contain highway sprawl

Service areas may not be so beautiful or pleasant but count me as a fan when you are on a long journey and don’t have time to stop for some local culture and cuisine. These auto-stops serve as rest stop, restaurant, and gas station. While they may not offer as many choices as our typical interstate commercial strips with their abundant choices of fast food and competing gas stations, they are efficient and convenient for the traveler. Further, they better contain the highway-oriented commercial uses to a smaller footprint, thereby reducing the sprawl-inducing development normally associated with an interstate highway exit. Some will see an economic disadvantage to controlling highway development.

Fewer ugly commercial corridors

If you were to exit an interstate and drive into a city in the U.S, you would most likely encounter miles of ugly commercial strip development before you reached the “good parts.” You know the roads – or “stroads” as they are sometimes called) - wide multi-lane thoroughfares, narrow sidewalks (if any at all), overhead utility lines, and the same fast food/gas station/drive through coffee shop/big and little box retail chains that are the same no matter where you go.

Driving in and out of the cities we visited, we did not encounter miles of ugly commercial strip development. Most roads were 2-3 lane with round-abouts at the intersections. “Sprawl” occurred in the form of commercial nodes that happened at key intersections. But the commercial development did not dominate the landscape in the way that sprawl dominates the U.S. suburban landscape. I have heard over and over again that “Europe has sprawl”, but it seemed to be much less than one would encounter when approaching cities of comparable size in the U.S.

In summary, here are my take-aways from my European road trip:

  • Round-abouts work very well (in the right locations)

  • If you want visitors to stop in your town center, provide parking that is easy to find and within walking distance of the center of activity

  • Highway service areas are a good alternative to highway sprawl

  • Let's stop zoning for endless, ugly, commercial strips

Our road trip comes to an end. This was taken just south of Paris in some random French village we spotted on the map. It made a great setting for a selfie with our trusty Renault Clio. That’s me on the right, and my friend (and French translator), Joel on the left.

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