This is the third in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.
After spending a year in Europe, it seems to me the number one bad thing about America is the automobile.
Our over-investments and huge tax subsidies to private autos with roots in economic and geological conditions of 100 years ago is the most powerful force for what’s bad in America: its eagerness to go to war; its disproportionate contribution to the climate change crisis; the outsize political power of reactionary oil moguls; the ugly suburban sprawl; and the domination of the chain stores and malls that largely destroy town centers and smaller business.
Living a year in Europe without a car was a financial blessing and a pleasure on many dimensions. When mass transit is taken as a natural component of a civilized infrastructure, people live better. This was especially on display in Berlin. Subway trains reliably come every 3-6 minutes; the average wait was 3-4 minutes, and the longest wait times off-peak were perhaps 8-12 minutes. If I’m not mistaken, that’s closer to the average wait time on the DC Metro outside rush hour.
Trains are clean, reliable and rarely crowded (unlike in Paris where the frequent trains seem almost always crowded and uncomfortable). The bus service is similarly superb. One of the things that made Berlin pleasant and in some ways village-like to live in, despite being a large city, was the paucity of car traffic even downtown. I saw traffic jams on the freeway at times, but on the major city streets traffic generally flowed well and just wasn’t heavy at any time of day. It’s got to be due in substantial part to the mass transit.
And let’s not forget intercity train service. Here’s a comparison: DC to Durham, NC, about 260 miles, and a roughly similar distance from Cologne, Germany to Paris. The Amtrak train is scheduled for 6.5 hours but is routinely two hours late: 8.5 hours. There’s one train a day. It is pretty cheap, about $45. Driving a car takes 4.5 hours, costs maybe $100. But hardly anyone who can afford to avoid the train will subject himself to 6.5-8.5 (or more) hours on a dirty, noisy, bumpy, uncertain train ride rather than a 4.5 hour car ride (or a roughly 3 hour door-to-door airplane+taxi trip @ maybe $300). There is also an intercity bus service that’s cheap, but not always reliable or safe, and nowhere near as comfortable as a good train.
I think most people who’ve been to Europe agree that taking the train there is basically fun. As I recall, there are at least 12 fast trains a day between Cologne and Paris, and it takes about 3.3 hours. Cost varies a lot but can be as low as $60. Second class areas are quieter and more comfortable than first class on Amtrak, in my opinion. Certainly the ride is smoother and the ambient noise level must be 50% lower.
The 60% on-time train rate between DC and NC arises because freight trains have the right of way, forcing Amtrak trains to pull to the side and wait, and wait, and wait. That’s because the US refuses to invest seriously in train infrastructure—i.e. constructing a track just for passenger trains—while enormously subsidizing auto infrastructure.
Yes, the US is much more thinly populated than Europe and that makes all the difference to the economics of intercity trains. US metro areas that sprawl out endlessly compared to relatively dense, compact European urban areas have similar implications for the accounting of obvious, direct costs. But has anyone actually tried to estimate all the costs of maintaining our commitment to automobiles? Including the greenhouse emissions, the trillions of dollars on oil-driven military policies, the value of time spent daily by Americans on frustrating, heart-attack-inducing stop and go commuting?