Lagging America

Posted here (week 2400).

Returning to the United States comes with some “reverse” culture shock. The brashness of commercial messaging, size of vehicles, size of people, prioritization of cars, and other aspects of life that seemed normal living with them 8 years ago now seem startling. It takes longer and longer to reacclimatize.

Our recent trips have been predominately to Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Here, my attention has been drawn to the way infrastructure seems aged.

The Amtrak trains are an obvious example. The equipment is clearly old, and scrappy repairs are visible. Recently we sat in business class behind a door that had been replaced with cardboard. It’s also obsolete; how is it that major cities are still linked with diesel lines?

This impression of age is also fed by obsolete priorities. Passenger trains incur delays because they must sidetrack for freight, and somehow this isn’t already accommodated by the scheduling. Cell service is great as long as there’s an urban area of highway nearby, but when the rails cross rural land without an accompanying interstate, signals are weak.

Of course, America doesn’t care about trains anyway. Highways are in similar shape. Here in the Netherlands, the highways are smooth, paved with asphalt that reduces rain bounce and high contrast markings. US interstates instead have seams, markings that are hard to see in rain, and include bridges with crumbling concrete stained with rebar rust. Recently built sections are tidy and have no shortage of ornamentation, while older but still heavily used segments are clearly not cared for.

Don’t get me started about the sidewalks or bike paths, almost anywhere. My commute in Amsterdam includes a segment of bike path that recently developed a puddle when it rains hard. There was also a few small buckles that were not too troubling, but did cause some riders to swerve a bit for the best ride. This week it is being rebuilt. My American self cannot fathom this level of care for public infrastructure.

Shifting my wallet to US mode also feels retro. Sure, the cards have chips in them, now, but I’ll still authenticate with a signature. Like when I endorse a paper check to turn it into money.

I guess it all makes sense for a country defined by nostalgia for the might it mustered in WWII.