America: stuck in the slow lane?

Car manufacturers spend millions each year on advertising, touting their latest models as they glide through glistening nighttime city streets and hug curvy mountain roads, but the reality for the American driver isn’t so sexy. On average, we’re stuck in traffic more than most other people on the planet. Our SUVs spend more time idling on interstates than tearing through wilderness (luckily for the wilderness).

Our trains are seldom on time. And US airports are stretched to capacity. The Economist recently published a piece called Life in the Slow Lane on how America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure impacts our economy and quality of life (hint: it’s looking rather grim).

deadly 2007 bridge collapse, Minnesota (Wikipedia)

Innovation is one of our nation’s greatest strengths. But we can’t innovate and create jobs—or get to them—if we can’t get around efficiently.

Meanwhile, oil companies rake in record profits, murderous Middle Eastern dictators cling to power, and $4/gallon gas prices may be here for a long while. Add to this mix the effects of climate change, which are becoming more visible and deadly than anyone could have predicted.

Painful. May 10, 2011. Route 9, Brookline, Massachusetts.

Have you thought about how you’re going to get around? What changes, and what choices can you make? Or will you spend less on other things so you can maintain your driving habit?

One of the biggest benefits to urban life is the ability to get around without a car. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it looks like living in a city is one of the greenest things the average person can do. The New Yorker staff writer David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability and the more recent book by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (whew) both tout the benefits of the urban life vs. suburbia’s automobile-enabled strip mall sprawl.

As city dwellers, my family rides our bikes, walks, or takes public transit as much as we can, because the alternative—driving (or rather, sitting in traffic, plus the hunt for parking)—is far more time-consuming and stressful. My son often scooters, walks, or rides his bike, too. He knows better than to ask me to drive him somewhere. In another year or so he’ll be old enough to take the train or bus with friends. Our family car (a Prius) stays parked in the driveway as much as possible. Americans and their children are getting fatter by the year. I’ll be damned if I don’t do something about it in my own little world.

Unfortunately, decades of car-centric planning and urban development have left many Americans without the choices that my family has. And at the moment, our elected officials seem unwilling to consider basic infrastructure projects needed to keep us safe and our economy afloat, let alone able to compete with the likes of China, Brazil and Europe—who are busy investing in their roads, high speed rail, bus rapid transit, public transport, bridges, bike lanes, and airports, in case you were wondering.

Without safe and reliable alternatives, it’s easy to see why we’ll be stuck in a car rut—and the global economic slow lane—if we continue down the same worn-out road.