Getting ready for the next disaster

One of the many surprises resulting from the carnage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy was how ill-prepared the US northeast—well, the entire US East Coast, for that matter—was in terms of defending what passes for its infrastructure. New York City has yet to take any initiative whatsoever on any plan to deal with rising oceans from global warming, including the well-forecasted impact of storm surges. But there were other significant preparedness shortfalls as well. Had no one really ever thought deeply about how to distribute gasoline if none of the pumps worked? Or how to get heat, food and medicines to people if there was a massive disruption to the grid? Or whether or not it might be a good idea to have a stash of spare generators handy? Based on the evidence, it would appear that if there was some deep thinking going on here, and there probably was somewhere, much of it never got incorporated into actual policy measures.

Well, it’s nothing new. Two years ago the Long Island Rail Road suffered a catastrophic power shutdown when a fire destroyed one switch. It turns out that some of the switches used by the LIRR are more than 100 years old. Some of the system has since been upgraded, but still—not upgrading your switching system on one of the busiest railroads in America for over 100 years? Meanwhile, bridges keep being closed, and occasionally collapsing, around the country, ever since the horrific (and highly public) collapse of the I35W bridge in Minnesota in 2007.

This seems to be symptomatic of something deeper. Edmund Luce has a column in Monday’s Financial Times so spot on that it deserves a full read, but we’ll just sample some of the highlights:

Last summer India had the largest power outage in human history affecting 600m people. So it stung when my visiting Indian mother-in-law pointed out that America’s east coast, including Washington, was “as bad as India”. Then it was a so-called derecho storm, which left 6m US homes without power for days in the searing heat. Last month it was Superstorm Sandy, which left 10m households shivering. Forecasters predict a heavy late December cold snap that is bound to cause blackouts.

It is hard to pinpoint the date at which Americans developed an Indian – or perhaps British – fatalism about the declining quality of their infrastructure. When my British mother spent several months in the US in the 1950s, it was dazzlingly futuristic. There was air-conditioning, an icebox in every fridge, ubiquitous neon lights and an open road on which even the working class could afford to drive. But bit by bit over the past 30 years, the world’s first truly modern infrastructure has shown its age. It has been starved by a generation of under-investment. And Americans have adapted around it.

And just how likely is the US Congress, that paragon of forward thinking, to respond to this? Luce is not optimistic:

There are three reasons to worry. First, there is remarkably little public outrage over the dilapidation in the power grid, public roads, domestic airports and waterways. This means that lawmakers will be feeling stronger pressures in other directions (such as defending the existing low level of capital gains tax, for example, or maintaining job-creating defence budgets). It is hard to fly domestically in the US and not at regular intervals face heavy delays, cancellations or being bumped off your flight. It is also hard not to miss the impressively stoical reaction of most passengers.

Luce discusses how this could be solved relatively easily, but at a cost, which is why it probably won’t be. But he’s also captured something here. One of the issues that is most surprising about this whole situation is the resignation, if not outright indifference, that most Americans express in the face of the steady deterioration of their infrastructure. But Luce offers a proposition to account for this:

Second, most Americans are unaware of how far behind the rest of the world their country has fallen. According to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report, US infrastructure ranks below 20th in most of the nine categories, and below 30 for quality of air transport and electricity supply. The US gave birth to the internet – the kind of decentralised network that the US power grid desperately needs. Yet according to the OECD club of mostly rich nations, average US internet speeds are barely a 10th of those in countries such as South Korea and Germany. In an age where the global IT superhighway is no longer a slogan, this is no joke. The budding US entrepreneur can survive gridlocked traffic. But a slow internet can be crippling.

You can bet everyone in Silicon Valley is well aware of this, even if the rest of the country isn’t. And Luce has yet more:

Third, it may be asking too much of Washington in its present state of polarisation to give the green light to an ambitious infrastructure plan. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US needs to spend $2,200bn in the next decade simply to maintain the existing quality of infrastructure. Under the current budget, Washington will spend less than half that amount. It requires a leap of faith to assume it will double, say, rather than fall sharply, when the bipartisan fiscal bargain is struck next year – if indeed it is.

In a departure from their party’s traditions, many Republicans are now ideologically opposed to any serious federal role in infrastructure and want to decentralise it to the states. It is thus also a stretch to imagine Congress setting up a public infrastructure bank, as President Barack Obama has requested. The bank would use $10bn in seed money to leverage a multiple of that in private money for cross-state projects – much like the European Investment Bank. The chances are it will stay on the drawing board.

Meanwhile, here in London, where we allegedly are under an austerity budget (and to a great extent we are) transportation infrastructure continues to be a high priority, as does the internet. And the various refrains and arguments over various models of airport expansion are now so customary as to be tedious. Prior to the Olympics this year we did some venturing out to some of the fringes of east London where there were various Olympic-related events taking place, and it was an eye-opener. London has been steadily expanding its rail infrastructure (for both the London Underground and the London Overground) further eastward. This is how it’s done. London laid out the transportation infrastructure for Canary Wharf and its environs over two decades ago, and the place just keeps growing. London is steadily marching eastwards, led in part by the transport and other infrastructure the local and national governments have had the foresight to prepare.

And this is where the impact of good planning, or the lack of it, takes on importance. It’s great fun being married to a geographer. Mrs W, in an inspired moment, once took a map of the Boston metropolitan area and overlaid it with the London Undergound map—a geographically accurate one, which is actually more impressive in some ways than the traditional Tube map. Of course, we’ve now got the nearly-fully-rebuilt Overground as well, not to mention hundreds of bus routes, and the many, many train services providing London commuters with access to and from areas outside of London. But even just sticking with the Underground map, the result is striking. The entire London Underground network is much larger than you think—it stretches literally, 16 miles north of central London, 15 miles east (with more coming), 10 miles south, and a whopping 29 miles west. (This doesn’t even include the current Crossrail project, which will allow pretty much anyone in London the ability to travel from Maidenhead to Shenfeld—nearly 50 miles) across the breadth of London on one single line.)

If you map this onto the Boston metropolitan area, particularly downtown Boston, where would this get you? Well, 15 miles east of Boston puts you in the middle of Massachusetts Bay, so that doesn’t help. 16 miles north gets you to up around North Reading. 10 miles south gets you to down around Quincy, which does have T service–the Red Line terminates there. 29 miles west of downtown Boston gets you out past Marlborough. Of course, the response will be there are the commuter rail systems, but of course they’re largely useless unless you’re an actual commuter. The commuter rail system feeding the South Shore of Boston, rebuilt in the 1990s and early 2000s at an ungodly cost, barely runs on weekends (it doesn’t even run on one of the two available lines), and mostly runs at rush hours in the morning and the evening during the week. And the MBTA is threatening further cuts in service.

This is not to say that London doesn’t have too much traffic, and too many cars. It does. But it also has evolved so that you can lead a perfectly comfortable life in London without ever hopping in a car to drive somewhere. I know of people my age who have never had a driver’s licence. And this is true in many—perhaps even most, for all I know–of the world’s cities. Certainly it’s true in Europe—but European cities, like the old cities of Britain, evolved before the automobile. And that accounts for a lot of it.

But it’s also true that we’ve all known for a decade or two now that the automobile-based culture of modern America was supported by so many forms of subisidy that users have avoided paying the full economic costs of the system; that long-term transport costs are bound to rise; and that the suburban model so prevalent in the US, and found in so few places elsewhere in the world, was going to be more difficult to sustain in the future. Right now there’s a burst of cheap energy from shale gas, but this is benefiting mainly chemical producers and utilities (and, good, consumers of natural gas utilities), at least for the time being—this may change once the full environmental costs are factored in, which they have not yet been.

But that’s only part of it. There seems also to be some aspect of American exceptionalism going on here (although I’d be prepared to accept that there’s something similar going on elsewhere if someone would point me in the right direction—China, for example—I just don’t know). Maybe it’s just outright denial. How else to account for Mayor Bloomberg’s anemic response to potential disaster (thank god for Governor Cuomo) including his magical thinking over wanting to let the New York Marathon take place the following weekend? Howe else to explain the preposterous amounts of skyscraper construction in Miami since the last major hurricane hit the area? How else to explain the mess that flood insurance is at present—where a program originally intended to let farmers stay on productive farmland has morphed into a convenient mechanism for rebuilding in areas that consistently get wiped out, and will continue to be in the future? How many more Sandys will it take before we get some sensible thinking? Edmund Luce is depressed. He has every reason to be.

3 replies »

  1. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that our long-standing image of rugged individualism has really hurt us Americans in recent years. I’ve noticed the decay more and more on highway overpasses and bridges, street signs, public buildings… it’s sad. And I don’t know how to wake up the majority of Americans to the needs of the future. I don’t know how to tell people that buy into the lies of our media that we are the laughing stock of the rest of the world and have them believe us. We have to start looking at societal needs and employing common sense across the board. You’re very right; it is depressing.