“When Boring Gets Exciting”

In his new column, “Omnibus,” Justin Glick takes a look at a recent report from Think Swiss that compares the transportation challenges faced by Switzerland and the U.S.

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“When Boring Gets Exciting.”

This caption, which refers to the imminent construction of the world’s biggest tunnel, is by far the best title for a report (PDF) on a public-works project I’ve ever heard. The paper was actually presented last month at George Washington University as part of Think Swiss’ “Inauguration of the Traveling Exhibit on ‘The Challenge of Sustainable Transportation for the 21st Century: The Prospects for Switzerland and the U.S.’” Think Swiss is a combination think tank and PR machine bankrolled by the Swiss government that aims to stir up a little excitement over what might be the dullest country in Western Europe. (What was that Eddie Izzard bit? Italy had 2000 years of war, strife and suffering and they gave us classical antiquity, the Renaissance and the opera, while Switzerland had 2000 years of peace and gave us the cuckoo clock.)

But I kid. Switzerland’s always been a place I’d love to visit. It’s certainly home to one of the world’s great integrated mass transit systems, which is why the report seems a little silly: 19% of all trips in Switzerland use public transit while that figure is a measly 2% in the U.S., and the average Swiss citizen travels 1,248 miles each year by rail, in which time the average American travels about zero miles by rail (the amount is almost imperceptible on the bar graph). So really, the transportation policy challenges that currently face the U.S. and Switzerland don’t overlap even a little bit. That being said, the U.S. and Switzerland ARE similar in one very crucial aspect: they’re both extremely wealthy countries. The report not only shows just how many light-years ahead of us Switzerland is in terms of infrastructure investment, but it offers some nice insight into how and why the Swiss invest and what we need to do to catch up. The many pie charts comparing relative expenditures on public transit, percentage of household income devoted toward transportation costs and so on are pretty enlightening.

While the discrepancies between our countries’ behavior are embarrassing, we do learn that there are good reasons for them. Aside from the fact that Switzerland is tiny and easier to traverse by train, traveling by rail is actually cheaper in Switzerland than traveling by road: 58 cents per passenger-mile compared to 72 cents for road travel. This is because the government steps in to subsidize train fares while simultaneously taxing the crap out of gasoline, which, at the time of the report, was more than twice as expensive as it is here. So at the end of the day, the individual is responsible for 89.6% of her travel costs when going by car and only 65.8% when going by rail. What we can draw from this is the shocking conclusion that if government were to subsidize sustainable means of transportation, people would most likely use them more often. And, perhaps more importantly, this stuff doesn’t just happen on its own; it needs full government support.

Anyway, check out the report, highly recommended, packed with fun pictures, I know you’ll love it.

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Tags: trains

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