Schauen Sie nach Deutschland

Here is an interesting, informative, and sober piece in Vox. The author, in describing Germany’s high-speed rail, suggests that we Americans could learn a thing or two about how best to transport people by train.

Riding the high-speed train between Berlin and Hamburg, Germany’s two largest cities, is a radically different experience from riding its American counterpart, Amtrak’s Acela, which connects major East Coast cities. Germany’s InterCity Express (ICE) ride is as smooth as a Mercedes on the Autobahn. The conductor comes around politely offering to bring you coffee. The bathroom doors open electronically with the push of a button for disability access. There’s no perennial stopping and starting of the train, no grumpy barking conductor, no herky-jerky rolling of the bathroom doors, none of Amtrak’s chronically late arrivals. And on German trains, the wifi actually works.

However, there is a problem, and it’s a big one, in trying to follow Germany’s lead. We Americans love sprawl, and sprawl frustrates the task of moving citizens from one burg to another.

One difference between German and American train travel is what you see out the window. On Amtrak’s Northeast corridor route, you can spend seven hours traveling from Boston to Washington, DC, without ever passing a farm. Each city’s suburbs bleed into the next. When leaving Berlin, on the other hand, in less than half an hour you’re whisked from the capital’s center to cornfields and cow pastures. This reflects not just the train’s speed but the absence of sprawl in Germany. The suburbs — a handful of detached houses with pitched roofs, many featuring solar panels — whiz by in a few minutes. Despite, or perhaps ironically because of, Europe’s greater density, you are far closer to the countryside when in a major city. There is no equivalent to the US’s unending hellscape of highways, strip malls, fast food drive-thrus, and auto body shops. Europeans’ cities were more built up before the car, and they didn’t then tear their cities apart to accommodate cars and facilitate sprawl, as we did. The US is so vast that we could pave everything within 200 miles of New York City and still have more than enough land for our corn and cows. But if Europeans wanted to preserve rural areas, they would have to use urban space more efficiently, and so they have. A much greater share of the typical European metro area’s population is concentrated in its inner city. So you get dense, transit-rich cities with countryside in between.

Sprawl, as we know, condemns us to the automobile, upon which we rely for the most ordinary daily activities. We drive from our suburban houses to fetch a loaf of bread, deliver children to playgrounds, and transport us to jobs scattered near and far. Those cars compete for limited space on our nation’s streets, roads, and highways, creating diurnal goos, which we curse and bemoan. Yet, we have no choice but to endure and suffer.

Oh, and what about all those carbons spewing forth from millions of tailpipes? We seem to be stuck with those, ultimately to our self-ruination.

Turning all this around would require a collective response, necessarily involving government. The Germans evidently understand the political dynamics, eschewing Americans’ feral faith in the individual and the heretofore unrealized magic of “the invisible hand.”