Monday, June 27, 2011

The Economist drives a truck through America's transport policy gap

I knew something was amiss. It's a bit like those spot the difference or what's wrong with this picture puzzles you find in newspapers.

As a journalist, transport had never been my patch until I arrived in the US and found "transportation" to be a huge issue here - fastest growing source of US emissions, creaking mass transit systems and partisan bickering over High Speed Rail are now subjects I've written about before.

As a European, trying to explain my disquiet at the American attitude to public transport has been met with a disappointing lack of meeting of minds from a diversity of people.

When I marvelled at how there was no way of getting from Mill Valley, a pleasant middle-class settlement, into San Francisco at the weekends, a local businessman who would could fairly be described as a "progressive" said that it was because no one (ie commuters) from Mill Valley needed to use the bus at the weekend (the corollary being that everyone who matters has a car).

When I asked Google's green energy czar, Bill Weihl, why the company chose to ferry 2,400 workers to and from its Mountain View site on private shuttle buses every day, rather than advocate for more resources for the beleaguered CalTrain service, he said it was perhaps more in the European culture to travel by public transport.

While Spain's building spree reported in the New York Times at the weekend was a timely reminder that all capital projects need to be designed with demand and discipline as priorities, it remains to be see whether its infrastructure strategy will be part of that nation's recovery. 

Mass transit is a blind spot even for Americans who take a moderately liberal approach to taxation and public spending.

Michael Scanlon, Caltrain chief executive and chairman of the American Public Transport Association, last week made good point at the Commonwealth Club meeting which I have addressed in this blog before.

He said: "What if (earlier generations) had said we can't afford to build the New York subway or the Golden Gate Bridge or the interstate highway system?"

But even one of the suggestions of how to pay for it is flawed - a national sales tax that depends on how much consumers spend, and therefore overly sensitive to economic downturns, is not a viable long term approach, as the supporters of the SMART train north of San Francisco will tell you.

Still, useful comments in the transport debate such as Scanlon's end up buried on the inside pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. Its op-ed pages carry some good comment from the likes of Rod Diridon a past member and chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

But HSR in California is in serious trouble, particularly if it loses the battle for positive publicity. Complaints that the project will cost too much at around $43bn are worsened by the reality that this estimate is way too low for 600 or so miles of track. But yet the state is prepared to spend $7.2bn on replacing 2 miles of the Bay Bridge, controversially with Chinese steel and engineering.

I had almost given up on trying to explain why I thought the US was in trouble over transport in a personal capacity, for fear of seeming like I was moaning for no reason. All that really matters in the debate is the price of gas, it seems…

But thankfully, the Economist has managed to frame the problem of transport in the US in a brilliant piece - the type that I do not yet have the resources to explore on this blog. It's a bit old now in terms of journalism, published at the end of April, but policymaking in the US, particularly on the issues that really matter, is as agonisingly slow as the Amtrak services it describes. That a federal transportation spending bill has been languishing in Washington for two years has not helped either.

The Economist, never one to sit on the editorial fence, surpasses its usual levels of criticism:
 America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart… America’s civil engineers routinely give its transport structures poor marks, rating roads, rails and bridges as deficient or functionally obsolete. And according to a World Economic Forum study America’s infrastructure has got worse, by comparison with other countries, over the past decade. In the WEF 2010 league table America now ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. Its roads, railways, ports and air-transport infrastructure are all judged mediocre against networks in northern Europe.
Americans, the article goes on to say, spend more time commuting than Europeans. And its roads are often poorly maintained:
More time on lower quality roads also makes for a deadlier transport network. With some 15 deaths a year for every 100,000 people, the road fatality rate in America is 60% above the OECD average; 33,000 Americans were killed on roads in 2010.
In 2006 America spent more than twice as much per person as Britain on new construction; but Britain spent 23% more per person maintaining its roads.  

But worse is yet to come, the Economist warns, as population growth is expected to increase 40% by 2050, equivalent to the population of Japan.
Total public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at 2.4% of GDP. Europe, by contrast, invests 5% of GDP in its infrastructure, while China is racing into the future at 9%. America’s spending as a share of GDP has not come close to European levels for over 50 years.
The article notes that cars in Germany cost 50% more to buy than in the US, which has resulted in sustainably funded transport system that benefits everyone, and America low level of fuel duty - 18.4 cents a gallon - has not increased since 1993.

It also describes perverse incentives in the allocation of transport funds, including:
A state using road-pricing to limit travel and congestion would be punished for its efforts with reduced funding, whereas one that built highways it could not afford to maintain would receive a larger allocation.

A National Infrastructure Bank along the lines of the European Investment Bank which uses its $300 billion in capital to provide loans for projects, would be one solution, suggests the Economist.

But the prospects aren't good, it concludes, because of the partisan bickering in Congress over everything from teaspoons in the cafeteria to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Roads, bridges and railways used to be neutral ground on which the parties could come together to support the country’s growth. But as politics has become more bitter, public works have been neglected. If the gridlock choking Washington finds its way to America’s statehouses too, then the American economy risks grinding to a standstill.
It's time for the bickering to stop and for the business community to stand up and count the cost publicly of ignoring the needs of the country's crumbling transport system. In the same way that the business community has hitched its wagon to notions of "sustainability" and "corporate social responsibility" in the absence of federal energy or climate policy, in the absence of a transport policy, it needs to climb on board the transport issue.

Those behind High Speed Rail need to do more to promote the economic benefits of a mass transit system that go beyond the profit potential for those contracted to deliver it.


  1. I linked to your website from your comment in The New York Times article on the new Oakland Bay Bridge.

    I have lived in the U.S. for 26 years. My family moved to New York from Central America when I was 11 years old. In these 26 years I have seen the sad deterioration of everything that previous generations of Americans worked so hard to build.

    If I had to emigrate from my country of origin as an adult, the U.S. would not be my top choice. I don't know why you, as a European, moved here (perhaps work sent you here?), but I can't think of any good reason why you would voluntarily do so. Especially to California. I lived there for four years as an adult, and that was about all I could stand.

    I completely agree with your article. I have always lived in large metro areas precisely because there is better public transportation. But, as you said, it still pales in comparison to European and Asian systems. I have chosen a lifestyle (ever since my teen years) that doesn't include car use. So, living in the U.S. is not the best place for my car-less lifestyle.

    From my observations of Americans and their idiocracy, they will not realize the error of their ways until it is far too late. It's like that old saw of the frog in the pot of water that is slowly getting hotter. Eventually, the frog boils to death not knowing how or why.

    Meanwhile, as much as I love living in Chicago now, I am really giving a lot of thought of emigrating from this country altogether and not look back. The U.S. is a dying country. The only reason to stay here, as a foreign-born person, is for some morbid curiosity to watch the train wreck in slow motion.

    Your continent of origin is looking a lot more attractive for my lifestyle to me now.

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