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July 11, 2008

Richard Florida

Lights Out

« Density and Politics | Main | The New Spatial Fix »

Writing in the New Statesman, Andrew Stephen compares the US crumbling infrastructure to conditions he observed during the collapse of the Soviet Union (via Planetizen).

The fact that I sat in my top-floor office in a puddle of sweat for most of the second week of this month because the air-conditioning had failed, for example, is hardly something I would expect the candidates to lose too much sleep over - even when the temperature inside crept past 110 degrees. For me, it all culminated in a visit from Bill, my friendly air-conditioning technician, on the morning of Friday the 13th.

What he told me symbolised much more than the strangely confused and angry mood that consumes America when the mere subject of "energy conservation" comes up. The ramifications went far beyond my usually nicely cooled, breezy office. Even America's outrageous hogging of the world's energy supplies - it comprises just 5 per cent of the world's population but uses 23 per cent of its energy resources - no longer seemed that surprising, let alone outrageous. It was what was going on around me and Bill as we spoke early that morning that brought home something I have been noticing with increasing alarm over the past two decades: the sheer fragility of America's crumbling infrastructures.

To my American readers: please do not get too angry with me when I say this, but the rapidity of the deterioration of your country's infra structures often reminds me of an extensive tour of the Soviet Union I undertook in 1986 - when I saw for myself, in places such as industrial Ukraine and Siberia and St Petersburg, that the Soviet Union had already had its day. For just as Bill and I were having our grim conversation early that Friday morning - and unknown to either of us at the time - the heart of the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, less than a mile from where we stood, had been plunged into the kind of chaos one might envisage in, say, New Delhi on a very, very bad day.

Having only been to Russia recently, I can't speak directly to his comparison. But, having lived in Washington DC I suffered through many, many power outages. Rana and I often remarked  that it felt like we were living not in an advanced country but the third world. We've yet to experience a single outage in Toronto, while her family's power was out for days upon days in suburban Detroit.


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I live in Falls Church, VA; grew up in Greenbelt, MD and have never experienced a power outage that wasn't due to outrageous weather, notably tremendous winds.

Can we cite an actual study pointing to the infrastructure? Preferably one that would compare the two countries???

hayden fisher

Agreed! Richard, you could have been living in a vulnerable grid. All of the America-haters don't get it. America's infra-structure has always been up-and-down, fix-it-up, tear-it-down...that's just the American grit at play. We're hard on things. And that's not what makes American great. What makes America great is the triple-play of true democracy, capitalism and our creative, innovative can-do attitude.

As I've said before, the energy "crisis" is an enormous opportunity. I dived-in myself completely 4 months ago and am loving it!!

But this article is most repulsive because the author draws general comparisons without citing any facts to support his premise.

Whitney Gunderson

Well, this is a fact. The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed less than one year ago. Or did we already forget about that? The bridge was part of the federal highway system, and bridges are infrastructure. So call me a zealot when I say that some people have died because of this, OR EVEN WORSE! But I'm really not because it is true. This is what Rush Limbaugh should be talking about.


hayden fisher

We will never eliminate disasters, man-made or otherwise. Maybe when we stop paving more roads to su-blah-bia, the squeaky wheels can get the oil they need. But it's ridiculous to argue that present-day American should be equated to the USSR of 1986.

Whitney Gunderson

Well I don't think the author equated present-day America to the USSR of 1986, he just compared infrastructure. There's more potential in America today that there ever was in the USSR, but our infrastructure does need work. I just reread the article and was thinking that comparing the scene in Washington, DC, where two subway trains derailed due to heat buckled tracks, sounds more like Mexico City so maybe the author should have compared America to present-day Mexico instead of the USSR of 1986. To imply that a bridge collapse can't be eliminated, or that they are imminent, might be true with the shape America's infrastructure is in today, but otherwise is hogwash. To imply that roads don't need to be paved, where-ever they lead to, so that other infrastructure gets the attention it needs, reminds me of a third world country mindset.

Michael Wells

The US faces two kinds of infrastructure crises, although they overlap.

The first is maintenance of the existing built infrastructure -- and I think it's generally acknowledged that our roads, bridges, railroads, water and sewer systems are deteriorating for lack of investment. The electrical grid is overloaded and on the brink, as shown by California in 2000-01 and the Northeast in 2003. It's this lack of attention to maintenance that I think Stephen is alluding to, rather than comparing the actual physical assets.

The second crisis is in building and adopting new infrastructure. The US has fallen from #1 in high speed internet connection speed to 15th of major countries. The average US download speed is 1.9 mbps, compared to 61 mbps in Japan, 54 in South Korea, 17 in France and 7 in Canada.

Where they overlap is places like high speed rail which is held back by the 1950's track system, subject to breakdown, in most of the country.

hayden fisher

Railroad infranstructure is actually undergoing the biggest boom in more than 100 years, a fact no one seems to cite other than the WSJ about a year ago; and I'm in a business affected by it so I'm aware of it.

Much of the energy issue issues in American owe their present states to the overreaching environmentalism of the past 20 years. Like no new nuclear plants. Like no oil drilling, even reasonable oil drilling. Like no more 404 permits in Appalachia that would lead to needed flat-land should be allowed even if the mining sites are properly re-claimed in an environmentally sound way. Like not allowing coal-to-oil even where the clean coal technologies eliminate the excess CO2 (Obama supports this by the way, he's a major proponent). Like no high-speed railways being allowed. Etc, etc.

We need balanced and sensible policies as well as the market conditions that now exist that take alternative energy strategies from a social do-gooder cause to a market opportunity. The energy issue is now on a fast-track to change.

No, we shouldn't accept mediocrity in our infrastructure. But we do need more common-sense policy-making.

Michael Wells

I'd sure like to see some of the new railroad infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest. The last time we took AmTrak to Seattle we were stuck sitting for 5 hours because of a landslide. It's routinely late because of track issues. I don't know about high speed railroads not being allowed, out here they would need an entirely new track system.

You could also argue that the energy issues are due to having abandoned serious environment efforts since the Carter administration. If we had kept improving automobile fuel standards, American cars would be as efficient as European or Japanese and the total fleet would be getting 30+ mpg today. If we had kept insulating houses as part of utilities rate bases, we'd be using much less electricity and not need new plants. And without the pollution and CO2 buildup that more fuel use produces.

Whitney Gunderson

Well, these are all important issues. But let's see.... what did Barack Obama talk about today? What? Eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world?


Energy and the economy need to be our first priorities. I'm wondering why Obama chose to talk about the nuclear topic. Any ideas?

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