January 27, 2023

Today’s Economist: Uwe E. Reinhardt: The Mid-20th Century Infrastructure of the U.S.

An Amtrak train navigates a turn near Baltimore.Luke Sharrett for The New York Times An Amtrak train navigates a turn near Baltimore.
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Uwe E. Reinhardt is an economics professor at Princeton.

Europeans visiting the Northeastern United States – and many parts of the East Coast — can show their children what Europe’s infrastructure looked like during the 1960s.

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

In New York, they can take taxis bumping over streets marked by potholes. European children might find it funny. They can descend into a dingy and grimy underground world to ride New York City’s quaint and screeching subway system, if they can figure out where trains go.

They can take the children for a ride with Amtrak from New York to the nation’s capital, giggling as the train slowly heaves and rolls, often in fits and starts, along the rickety tracks. Passengers can be heard joking that the Navy trains its sailors on this railway system, because anyone who can make it through two or three cars without bumping into seated passengers or spilling food on them is fit to go to sea.

If they departed from Pennsylvania Station in New York, they would not have known until 5 to 10 minutes before departure from which track the train would leave. And it might not leave on time. In their home country, the children would have learned that the track from which a train departs is printed in the train schedule. It is the same every day.

At Pennsylvania Station, hundreds of passengers wait in suspense for the announcement of the track and dash to it in a mad rush, running along the train in a frantic search for a seat. In Europe, one would have booked a seat in a rail car that stops at a spot shown on a poster on the track.

Unlike Europe or Asia, where trains typically adhere to the minute to scheduled times, the departure times in Amtrak’s schedules merely represent a promise that the train will not leave before then. The actual getaway might be many minutes or even more than an hour after the scheduled departure time, with any of dozens of different excuses offered. Brakes on the train stuck. Signal switches malfunctioned. Electricity was not available to the train for some reason. A train ahead, on the same track, broke down. And so on.

Arriving at a destination on time, something Europeans take largely for granted, is relatively rare on Amtrak. Furthermore, the train in Europe or Asia is likely to have traveled at much higher speed. The tracks there are so smooth that one could easily carry an open cup of coffee along several cars or work on the computer.

Why and how Americans, who pride themselves on being fussy consumers, have put up with this mid-20th-century rail system is a mystery.

Even more wondrous than the archaic subway and rail system and the potholes in the streets is the system of distributing electric power to households and factories in large parts of the Northeastern United States. Power is often still carried on lines that hang in graceful catenaries of various depths from poles that lean left or right randomly but rarely stand straight. And which are vulnerable to powerful storms, like Hurricane Sandy.

When a German high-school classmate visited me, we came upon the intersection below, less than a mile from the center of Princeton, N.J. My friend burst out laughing at the abundance of wires in every direction, something he had seen only on his travels to the developing world.

Uwe E. Reinhardt

In my youth, electric power in Germany’s countryside, where I grew up, was carried on power lines strung from very tall and straight poles. But for decades now, power lines have been buried underground in Germany and most of the rest of Europe.

Malte Lehming, opinion-page editor of the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, noted in his essay “Welcome to America. Take a Number” in The New York Times:

I spent half a day hunting for a store with flashlights in stock, because a storm had knocked out our power. In five decades in Germany I have never experienced a single power failure, because the power lines are usually underground and well maintained.

Imagine that – life without power failures! In much of the Northeastern United States – and perhaps in many other parts of the country as well – lengthy power disruptions are part of the American way of life. In Princeton, they occur somewhere in the township after almost every thunderstorm or snowstorm, as branches snap from trees and take down vulnerable power lines.

Last fall, for example, after a brief storm dumped wet snow on trees, many parts of New Jersey, Princeton included, were without power for about a week. Parts of Connecticut were without power for more than two weeks.

In 1958, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith drew attention to America’s neglect of its infrastructure in his famous book, “The Affluent Society.” Alas, his call for a better balance between private and public infrastructure has gone largely unheeded in this country in the ensuing half-century.

Our country reminds me of the old tale of a frog that allowed itself to be cooked to death after it was put in a pan of cold water that was very gradually heated to the boiling point. Although apparently there is no scientific basis for that tale — biologists say the frog would jump out — we do seem to act like that frog, as our infrastructure ever-so-gradually steadily decays around us.

Instead of setting about to bring our infrastructure up to 21st-century standards – which might, alas, involve more of the much detested public-sector investment — we angrily and yet meekly suffer for days or weeks without light, heat and transportation, verbally shaking our fists at the power companies but leaving it at that.

We are, at most, prepared to stock our households with flashlights and candles and, if we have the money, buy portable generators that can produce a modest amount of electricity, albeit at great expense. How can this be an efficient way of bringing electric power to households?

In so many ways the United States is a great country. The American people are innovative and hard-working, more so than most Europeans. It amazes me that they put up so fatalistically with this old-fashioned and decaying infrastructure.

Article source: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/americas-mid-20th-century-infrastructure/?partner=rss&emc=rss

With a Start-Up Company, a Ride Is Just a Tap of an App Away

Uber, a start-up based in San Francisco, offers a cellphone application that is aimed at making using a car service quick and painless.

The service has already found success in its hometown, where some have welcomed it as an antidote to notoriously sluggish public transit and a dearth of cabs.

But as of Wednesday, Uber is coming to New York, where it will face the task of wooing locals who already have a good subway system and, at most times, a decent supply of taxis.

Uber is not a taxi or limousine company. Instead it operates as a dispatch service, working with local owners of licensed private car companies. Uber provides each car with an iPhone and software that manages incoming requests. When an Uber user needs a ride, the dispatcher and the closest car are notified, and the system sends back an estimate of the pick-up time. While they wait, users can monitor the car’s location on their phone.

Travis Kalanick, who co-founded Uber with Garrett Camp, said the concept was inspired by their personal transportation troubles.

“The idea at the very beginning was to figure out a better way to get a cab in a city like San Francisco, which as anyone knows who lives here can be a nightmare,” Mr. Kalanick said.

“Garrett wanted to get a garage, hire a driver and split the cost among friends,” he said. “At first, I told him he was crazy. I thought about it and realized maybe we could work out a service where everyone has access to a private driver.”

Uber says that since last June it has brokered tens of thousands of rides in the Bay area and attracted hundreds of cars to join its fleet.

Julie Rajagopal, who works at a tech start-up in San Francisco, tried Uber earlier this week when she was running late for work and had trouble hailing a cab.

“After flailing my arms for 20 minutes, I decided to try Uber,” she said. The car showed up within two minutes, she said, and delivered her to work on time.

“I don’t mind paying a few dollars more,” she said. “Not waiting 30 minutes and being late to work is worth a few extra dollars.”

Uber charges a base fee of $7 in San Francisco, or $8 in New York, and then a rate for the time or distance traveled, depending on the car’s speed. There is a $15 minimum for each ride, and the company includes tips in its calculation. An average trip in New York, with tip, should cost about 1.75 times as much as a taxi, Mr. Kalanick said, adding that he hoped people would find Uber’s convenience and ease of use to be worth it.

For some, the cost is a hurdle. Zhao Lu, who lives in San Francisco and works for a wireless carrier, said he had signed up for Uber at the recommendation of a friend and was not pleased with the premium pricing.

“I thought it was outrageous,” he said. “I would use it if I couldn’t find any alternatives, if it were cold or late at night.” But otherwise, he said, “it’s too expensive.”

Uber, which is available for the iPhone and Android devices, requires users to enter their credit card information when they sign up. When they reach their destination, they can simply hop out, and the ride is charged to the card. Uber gets a percentage of each fare; the rest goes to the car services and drivers.

New York is a different beast than San Francisco when it comes to public transportation, and in much of the city there is often no shortage of ways to get around. But Mr. Kalanick said that in coming to New York, Uber was responding to the interest of its users. The company noticed that more than 1,000 people in the city had signed up and put their credit cards on file without knowing when the service might be available to them.

“We decided to respond to the demand,” he said. “We were coming to New York eventually — why not now?”

When those early fans opened the Uber app, the company made note of their phone’s location. That data helped it figure out the areas where demand might be highest. The densest pockets were in downtown Manhattan, including SoHo and the Lower East Side, and parts of Brooklyn. The company also tries to keep fleets near neighborhoods where high volumes of bookings are expected, lowering wait times.

Nationally, Uber faces competition from TaxiMagic and other services that let users book cabs and car services online. And it may get pushback from city agencies that have ironclad rules about how transport services must operate.

Late last year, Uber received a cease-and-desist order from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which said customers might be confused and think the company was running its own car service. Uber, then known as UberCab, responded by shortening its name, which appeased the authorities.

Dan Ackman, a New York lawyer who often represents taxi drivers, said he did not think a service like Uber would run into too many legal problems in the city. “It’s not that different from using Google or a directory to find a car service,” he said.

But Mr. Ackman said there might be legal nuances. The city requires booking requests for car services to be relayed from a central office, and Uber could be challenged if the city somehow decided it was circumventing that, he said.

Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which oversees New York’s taxis and black cars, declined to comment on Uber. The company says it is working with the agency to ensure that it is complying with regulations.

Investors seem to think the Uber idea has promise. The company has raised $12.5 million in venture financing from noted investment firms including Benchmark Capital, First Round Capital and the Founder Collective. And it has its sights set on expanding to cities like Boston, Seattle, Washington and Chicago.

Mr. Kalanick said the car service business would benefit from a revamped approach. “Don’t underestimate the power that efficiency and elegance of experience can have on a stagnant market,” he said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=497584a9c034632d54b3cf248b6e60dc