The infrastructural humiliation of America
I’m flying back to the USA today, and as an infrastructure aficionado, it’s nice to be going home, but I’m dreading the disappointment. I just spent two weeks in Singapore and Thailand; last year I spent time in Hong Kong and Shenzhen; and compared to modern Asia, so much American infrastructure is now so contemptible that it’s hard not to wince when I see it.
The USA is nine times wealthier than Thailand, per capita, but I’d far rather ride Bangkok’s SkyTrain than deal with NYC’s subway nowadays. I’d much prefer to fly into Don Muang, Bangkok’s ancient second-tier airport — which was actually closed for years, before being reopened to handle domestic flights and low-cost airlines — than the hostile nightmare that is LAX. And those are America’s two primary gateway cities!
So imagine what it’s like coming to America from wealthy Asian nations, and their gleaming, polished, metronomically reliable subways, trains, and airports. I don’t think Americans understand just how that comparison has become a quiet ongoing national humiliation. If they did, sheer national (and civic) pride would make them want to do something about it. Instead there’s a learned helplessness about most American infrastructure nowadays, a wrong but certain belief that it’s unrealistic to dream of anything better.
It’s not just those two cities. Compare Boston’s T to, say, Taipei, or San Francisco’s mishmash of messed-up systems — Muni, where I have waited 45 minutes for a T-Third; CalTrain, which only runs every 90 minutes on weekends; BART, which squandered millions on its useless white-elephant Millbrae station — to Shenzhen. And it’s not just age; Paris’s metro was inaugurated in 1900, but its well-maintained system continues to run excellently and expand continuously.
Americans still tend to think of themselves as an example to other nations. Ha. I assure you, over the last few years nobody has flown from Seoul or Taipei or Tokyo or Singapore or Hong Kong or Shenzhen into Newark Airport; taken the AirTrain to the NJ Transit station; waited for the rattling, decrepit train into the city; walked through the repellent ugliness of Penn Station to the subway; waited for its ever-increasing delays; ridden to their destination; and finally emerged into New York City — the nation’s alpha city! — still thinking of the USA as anything other than a counterexample, or maybe a cautionary tale.
This goes beyond transport infrastructure. Airport security measures are much more sensible in Asia. Payments are increasingly separately structured, and better, too — in many places, credit cards (which already barely exist as a concept in China) are beginning to slowly wither away, replaced by Alipay and to a lesser extent WeChat Pay. (Not least because an ever-growing proportion of the tourist population is Chinese rather than Western, nowadays.)
That’s admittedly an example of leapfrogging, not decay, and American infrastructure does still have some bright spots. American roads are mostly still superb. Lyft and Uber are much better than their Southeast Asian equivalent Grab, which, whenever I checked it during this latest trip, was invariably both slower and more expensive than a taxi (never mind a tuk-tuk) despite the infamous Thai taxi mafias. International mobile connectivity is excellent and user-friendly and reasonably priced, at least if you’re on T-Mobile like me, and as an added bonus, due to a technical quirk, mobile data roaming bypasses China’s Great Firewall.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the state of much of America’s infrastructure is appalling on its face, and even moreso when compared to nations which are on paper nowhere near as rich. The money other nations spend on urban infrastructure (don’t even get me started on intercity trains) is instead siphoned off to somewhere else. It makes the USA — still by far the wealthiest country in the world! — seem like an dying empire, one beginning to visibly crack and crumble as it is slowly hollowed out from within.
What happened? A cascading series of failures of imagination; failures to invest in the future; paralyzed or ideologically blinkered or simply idiotic governance; and, perhaps most of all, cost disease. (It frequently costs a whopping 4x as much per mile to build a subway in the USA as it costs in, say, Paris or Seoul. Sometimes even more.) What can be done? I’m pretty sure the first step is for Americans to believe that something can be done. Clearly it can. Just look across the Pacific.