Monday, April 7, 2008


Humorist Dave Barry once observed that driving in Italy had only one rule- you’re supposed to be in front of the guy in front of you. Having driven in Italy, I can attest to the truth of that statement. The motorways of many European countries have a posted speed limit of 120K, but that seems to be merely a suggestion. If you go that fast, you are just in the way. I once drove from Geneva to Zurich on a beautiful four-lane highway. I did not feel all that comfortable going much over 120K. When I did come up on a slower moving vehicle, I’d look in the rear view mirror and, seeing no one in sight, pull out to pass. Immediately, some guy would be right on my tail flashing his lights for me to get out of the way. I could never figure out where he came from.

In North America I have noted several immutable laws of driving.

1. No matter how fast you go, someone always wants to go faster. If you are on the freeway passing a line of slower cars, this person is always right behind you pushing you to get the Hell moving.

2. If you are in traffic and you leave a little space between you and the car in front, someone will always cut in front of you to fill that space.

3. If you are on a two lane road with a long line of cars in front of you, the guy behind you will ride right on your bumper. It’s never clear to me what he wants me to do… go faster? Pull over, so he can get behind the guy in front of me? (See driving in Italy above.)

From my experience Canadian drivers are more polite and patient than Americans. This excludes people from Montreal who, like their French cousins, drive as if they have a death wish. Canadians will almost always wait and let you merge in front of them. It is required, however, that you give a thank you wave. Not doing so is regarded as bad manners indeed, and you may get a single digit salute for your oversight. Unlike Europeans who seem to drive with one hand on the wheel and another on their horn Canadians seldom employ the honker.

Canadians also have a technique called “alternating” when two lanes merge into one. Like we were taught in kindergarten, we take turns. The Lion’s Gate Bridge in Vancouver puts this practice to the test. The bridge has three lanes total and, depending on the time of day, may have only one lane going into the city. At those times four lanes of traffic must merge into one to cross the bridge. First the four lanes merge to two and then the two into one. Everyone alternates politely one after the other and it works surprisingly well. Anyone who violates the protocol gets a few angry toots of the horn. Few do. One time I was taking my friend, Daniel, across during one of these four lane merges. Daniel is from Paris and he just shook his head in amazement. He said, “You put this bridge in Paris and the second day the government would be overthrown!” He’s right of course, for driving in Paris can only be described as a blood sport. It’s a continual game of chicken and not for the faint of heart. Although I have visited Paris dozens of times, I have never driven there, and never will.

Every time I drive down to Seattle and get caught in one of their seemingly constant traffic jams, I wonder about our love for the automobile. Does it stem from our distant past where every man had a horse? You would think so by looking at the cars that are mostly occupied by a single person. Miles and miles of cars jammed together on a ribbon of concrete, creeping along, burning up gas and spewing out that dreaded C02. Every morning and every evening in every major city in North America people sit in traffic, inching their way to and from work. It seems to me to be a horribly inefficient way to move people from one place to another.

The hefty per gallon taxes on gasoline has generated billions of dollars for state and federal governments who in turn spend it on building more and more highways. As soon as they are finished, they are choked with more cars. Instead of five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, you now have six. We are rapidly running out of places to build more highways and, as the price of gasoline creeps ever higher, building more monuments to the automobile seems less and less like a great idea.

Air travel also appears to be reaching the maxed out stage. Here too, taxes on tickets and airport fees have provided cash for tremendous expansion. But, the system operates on the ragged edge of collapse. A hiccup or bad weather at one of the major hubs ripples throughout the continent and everything grinds to a halt. The skies are choked with airplanes and the airport terminals teeming. Air travel has become another nightmare.

With the highways and airways jammed, you have to wonder why we Norte Americanos have not made even a token effort to improve our dismal rail transportation system. It’s not like we don’t have an excellent model to emulate. Anyone who has traveled in Europe has likely taken a ride on one of those high-speed trains. Whizzing along at 200+KPH in comfort makes one wonder why we go through the hassle of flying- the parking, the long line ups waiting for some yahoo to confiscate our toothpaste, the hour or so on the tarmac waiting to take off. At many European airports you can arrive on your trans Atlantic flight, take an elevator downstairs and hop on a train to anywhere. And, it’s efficient. If it says the train leaves at 9:15 and you arrive at 9:16 you can be certain you missed that one.

Riding a train in the US cannot be described as convenient or fast. OK, there are a couple of commuter services that work well, but if you want to go from Kansas City to Chicago or Chicago to LA, forget it. You might do it for nostalgia or for the unique experience, but you certainly would not do it for convenience.

The US and Canada has built a wonderful highway system. Now it’s time to devote that same energy and ingenuity to building a continent wide system of high-speed rail lines connecting major metropolitan areas. The Europeans managed it. We could too…. if we wanted to, that is, or demanded it from our elected officials. Let’s face it. It’s time.


Merrie Cuylter said...

Looking at images on the news of all the pissed off people waiting to get on other flights after American Airlines cancelled everything really brings this idea to the forefront...or it should. Imagine how many of these people would say, "Gosh, I could wait in the airport for hours or maybe overnight, or even a couple of days...OR...hop on a train downstairs that will take me to where I need to go in about six hours." Tough decision. I remember in college...and yeah, we're talking almost 20 years ago...I wrote a speech about how nice it would be if there was a high-speed train and commuter rails running along the median of I-5, and how many people sitting in traffic would say to themselves, "I'm gettin' on that thing tomorrow!" If you make it easy, convenient and comfortable, people will use it. Put stops at the major employers--Boeing, Microsoft, the business epicenters--people will use it.

Eugenia Stull said...

John and I have discussed (a number of times, actually) that this country would benefit greatly from improving its railsystem - both for freight and passenger movement.

Speed and convenience notwithstanding, why isn't it less expensive to travel by rail? I am often willing to give up some vacation time to have the "wind-down" time that traveling by rail affords when going to visit family. It's a beautiful ride, and I don't have to deal with any airports. For the same price, I can get to my destination 42 hours earlier. That just doesn't make sense.