The Frontal Cortex

American Infrastructure

Forgive the light posting. I’ve been traveling. I’m now in Switzerland, reporting a story that I’m sure we’ll be talking about later. But for now, I’d like to share a few thoughts on being an American abroad.

The first thought is sobering. One can’t help but be impressed by the infrastructure of Europe. To get to JFK, I had to take a grimy rush hour A-train that broke down in the middle of Brooklyn. Then there were the requisite security lines that took forever, since the Department of Homeland Security (I still get Orwellian shivers whenever I write that bureaucratic name) has a fondness for arbitrary rules. For example, they took my toothpaste. It was 3.4 ounces. Very verbotten.

Flying into Switzerland couldn’t be more different. The airport was clean and shiny. The passport controls took ten seconds. (I was even greeted with a Teutonic smile!) The train station was a short walk away from the terminal. My train was clean and arrived on time. In other words, the mass transit system worked perfectly. And I’m comparing the trains of rural Switzerland to the best mass transit system in the United States, which is the MTA. I don’t want to get all political, but one can’t help but wonder what America could do if we weren’t sinking so much treasure into the quicksand of Iraq. The answer to that question is so depressing.

My other thought is the same banal thought that repeats on a loop inside the head of every American tourist in Europe: when the dollar is weak, everything is insanely expensive. Even my subsidized train ride.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Switzerland is some kind of perfect utopia of milk chocolate and fancy watches. I spotted a few leftover election posters, and the black sheep are pretty creepy.


  1. #1 Nic D
    October 24, 2007

    I’m not sure it’s fair to compare a 125-year-old, continuously running urban subway to a rural high-speed line. Making even modest changes to the MTA is a logistical nightmare. If you want to see evidence that the USA can build a clean, efficient subway system, just look at the Washington Metro. (And as someone who’s frozen on the D-branch green line too many times one stop out from Longwood, I’m not disposed to like our transportation policy.)

    For a more fair comparison, I would ask why the Acela on the Boswash corridor sucks. I have no answer.

  2. #2 Steve Silberman
    October 24, 2007


    I totally agree, and have the same feelings every time I go to Europe these days. When Keith and I were on our honeymoon, we marveled at how stress-free the passage between EU countries was. I’m amazed that the NYC subway works as well as it does most days, but the hassles over toothpaste in airports are a perfect example of what Bruce Schneier calls security theater. When we came back from our honeymoon, we were struck by the fact that the first sign in English arriving travellers would see in SFO was one advising them that they are subject to “body cavity search.” In the luggage area, they ran a pack of loud barking dogs through the bags sniffing for pot. That’ll keep us safe.

  3. #3 Caledonian
    October 25, 2007

    I don’t want to get all political, but one can’t help but wonder what America could do if we weren’t sinking so much treasure into the quicksand of Iraq.

    Sinking it into some other quicksand, most likely.

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