March 29, 2015

Overseas, Underfunded: Transportation

July 17, 2011 John de Rosier editorial cartoon with the national infrastructure, represented by a highway, laying on crutches; a construction worker says "There's a crack! Grab the duct tape."

Since WWII, America has opted for quick fixes or no fixes at all.

Transportation is the backbone of any society. Cars bring people to work, buses haul kids to school, trucks spread goods across the country, trains pull miles of containers from coast to coast. America’s institutions would not exist if we did not have fast, reliable means of transportation.

However, for six decades America has neglected to sit up straight and drink its milk. Its backbone is now weak and warped, and no amount of Bayer Back and Body will make the pain go away. Frankly, there is no way to sugarcoat the transportation epidemic that America is facing. Our post-WWII infrastructure is failing, as expected, while much of America’s mass transit systems are completely reliant on government-provided life support.

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam is standing next to the hospital bed wondering how little money he can spend and still keep Old Man Road and Granny Transit alive. Fortunately, the American public is starting to realize that quick, cheap fixes, which could be avoided with proper, continual maintenance, only lead to larger expenditures in the future.

Ironically, this situation will help my career in the not too distant future. Sure, I will have to deal with the expenditures like any other taxpayer, but as an up-and-coming civil engineer, this problem could present me with innumerable opportunities. Once our government devises some kind of plan to address the situation, civil engineers will be in high demand and short supply. So, for all of you incoming Lafayette freshman, consider taking a look at our premier civil engineering program. Believe it or not, Lafayette College is not paying me to say that.

Germany, however, has developed and sustained a brilliant system of transportation. Mass transit can be found almost anywhere in the form of a bus, train, or tram. Astonishingly, all of these modes of transport run on time, all the time. They offer everyone a safe and cost-efficient way to get almost anywhere. As if these seemingly basic principles weren’t enough, I have yet to be approached by a homeless person looking for me to cough up the money for their fare. Not as much can be said about NJ Transit.

Germany is home to the notorious and unmistakable Autobahn. Supposedly, this highway has no speed restrictions. It is the apple of any newly-christened teenage driver’s eye. While it is true that a majority of the Autobahn allows for all-you-can-speed joyrides, there are sections in which a speed limit is enforced…supposedly. You would not be able to tell by watching the cars because it seems that no matter where you go, cars are maintaining a minimum of 90 mph. I’m telling you, these cars really fly. I’m convinced that at the beginning of the Autobahn, German highway officials strap cinder blocks to the drivers’ foot and tell them that at the end lies a lifetime supply of chocolate. Regardless, never before have I seen such a well-maintained, smooth system of roads. The Autobahn has definitely earned its prestige.

A car parked on the sidewalk next to other parked cars

When street parking isn’t exclusive enough for you, park on the sidewalk.

Not only do Germans have a need for speed, they tend to drive anywhere and everywhere they would like. To the German population, the world is their roadway; they were born with the right to transport themselves over any solid surface in their Volkswagens and Mercedes-Benzes. Countless times I’ve been run off pedestrian walkways and sidewalks by errant motorists. While I dust myself off, count my blessings, and throw a couple of dirty looks, the natives don’t even bat an eye as these people roll on through a crowded town square. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that a majority of Germany’s national security budget is, or should be, dedicated to keeping cars on the roads. Terrorists and cyberattacks don’t present nearly as much of a threat.

If you feel like showing off your independent, loose cannon side, biking is a strikingly popular way to get around. A majority of Germany is flat and perfectly suitable for bicycling. They come particularly in handy when traveling throughout a city. Basically all of the roads in German cities have accompanying bike lanes either in the street or on the sidewalk. Also, there is never a shortage of bike racks to securely lockup your ride.

As a pedestrian, however, bikes, like those wayward cars, present a danger to those on the sidewalk. Bike lanes are indicated with different colored brick, but it is easy to meander a foot or two to the side and end up walking on their designated pathway. When this happens, bicyclists that are approaching from behind you will simply ring their bell to get your attention. These bicyclists are unwavering and unwilling to slow down or change direction unless completely necessary so treat that bell like a fire alarm and get the heck out of there.

As a student studying abroad, I’ve most appreciated the option of cheap short-haul airfare. Airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet offer incredible rates for short flights to all of Europe’s hotspots. Sure, the pilot is probably overworked, dangerously tired and experiencing double vision, but I’ll take the risk in the name of frugality. I hope that someday a similar system will be set up in the United States. Thus far, I have been unable to visit many major American cities due to the exorbitant ticket prices.

The United States’ crumbling infrastructure and inefficient mass transit systems can be fixed with proper reform and sufficient funding. Our nation’s politicians need to set aside their bureaucratic tendencies, understand how widespread and severe the dilapidation has become, and take appropriate action. Germany should be used as an example as they are doing similar projects, overhauling entire sections of highway. Evidently, the organization of their transit systems is effective and it would be wise to mimic. Until that time comes, we will have to deal with the lifestyle and financial implications of our suffering infrastructure.

A cartoon with a Republican elephant, then a broken bridge, then a Democrat donkey next to President Obama, who says, "We need to rebuild our national infrastructure."

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