America's transport infrastructure: Life in the slow lane  

Posted by Big Gav in

The Economist has a look at the state of America's infrastructure - America's transport infrastructure: Life in the slow lane.

America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart. American cities have suffered a rash of recent infrastructure calamities, from the failure of the New Orleans levees to the collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis, to a fatal crash on Washington, DC’s (generally impressive) metro system. But just as striking are the common shortcomings. 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.

America is known for its huge highways, but with few exceptions (London among them) American traffic congestion is worse than western Europe’s. Average delays in America’s largest cities exceed those in cities like Berlin and Copenhagen. Americans spend considerably more time commuting than most Europeans; only Hungarians and Romanians take longer to get to work (see chart 1). 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.

There is little relief for the weary traveller on America’s rail system. The absence of true high-speed rail is a continuing embarrassment to the nation’s rail enthusiasts. America’s fastest and most reliable line, the north-eastern corridor’s Acela, averages a sluggish 70 miles per hour between Washington and Boston. The French TGV from Paris to Lyon, by contrast, runs at an average speed of 140mph. America’s trains aren’t just slow; they are late. Where European passenger service is punctual around 90% of the time, American short-haul service achieves just a 77% punctuality rating. Long-distance trains are even less reliable.

Air travel is no relief. Airport delays at hubs like Chicago and Atlanta are as bad as any in Europe. Air travel still relies on a ground-based tracking system from the 1950s, which forces planes to use inefficient routes in order to stay in contact with controllers. The system’s imprecision obliges controllers to keep more distance between air traffic, reducing the number of planes that can fly in the available space. And this is not the system’s only bottleneck. Overbooked airports frequently lead to runway congestion, forcing travellers to spend long hours stranded on the tarmac while they wait to take off or disembark. Meanwhile, security and immigration procedures in American airports drive travellers to the brink of rebellion.

And worse looms. The country’s already stressed infrastructure must handle a growing load in decades to come, thanks to America’s distinctly non-European demographics. The Census Bureau expects the population to grow by 40% over the next four decades, equivalent to the entire population of Japan.

All this is puzzling. America’s economy remains the world’s largest; its citizens are among the world’s richest. The government is not constitutionally opposed to grand public works. The country stitched its continental expanse together through two centuries of ambitious earthmoving. Almost from the beginning of the republic the federal government encouraged the building of critical canals and roadways. In the 19th century Congress provided funding for a transcontinental railway linking the east and west coasts. And between 1956 and 1992 America constructed the interstate system, among the largest public-works projects in history, which criss-crossed the continent with nearly 50,000 miles of motorways.

But modern America is stingier. 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. Over that time funds for both capital investments and operations and maintenance have steadily dropped.

2 comments

Anonymous   says 1:53 AM

America should spend more on infrastructure. However, when we spend so much on the military to support other democracies, something has to give. See Secretary Gates speech at the Eisenhower library: http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1467.

Well - I think most of the world would be pretty happy if you spent a lot less on your military-industrial complex and more on your infrastructure....

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