Friday, December 19, 2008

London Calling

Greetings from London! where I've snuck off for two weeks.

There is nothing so tedious as Americans who come back from Europe moaning about how much better things are there than they are in the United States. So with that by way of begging your pardon, here I go.

I haven't been here in two years, and I'm struck particularly that England is moving so much faster in directions to deal with environmental issues, urban questions, and sustainability than we are in the US.

Take public transportation (which I have been taking since I got here): it isn't simply that the trains, buses and subways are so crowded with users, or that they run so much better than they do almost anywhere in America - that much has been true for a while. But it is clear that in London, the rest of Great Britain (and in Germany where I spent 3 days last week) governments and the private sector are aggressively investing to make these systems even better. Modern buses and bus stops (that tell you what bus is due to arrive when); sleek modern train cars; and most of all speed. London to Paris now in 2hrs 15 min.

By comparison, Amtrak looks positively shabby. When I heard that Barak Obama will travel from Philadelphia to DC for the inauguration, I joked that the inauguration would probably be delayed for several hours because of an Amtrak breakdown. American railroad track can't accommodate high-speed trains, and no one has bothered to invest in upgrading most of that track in about half a century.

Likewise food production. Stop into any ordinary supermarket in London and you will find that locally (or regionally) produced food, organic food, free range meat etc are widely available. What is still largely a boutique niche in the United States is entirely common and mainstream here.

Climate change is an accepted fact here - not something with scare quotes around it as in America - and so the discussion is not whether to act, but how. The winner of the design competition for the next generation of double-decker buses for London, announced today, will be hydrogen-powered. And thanks to the "congestion fee" which charges people who drive private cars in central London, the buses make it around town more efficiently than they used to.

All of which is to say that being here, I can't help but feel in a more palpable way that America no longer leads the world, not at least on these critical issues. We look dated, backward, and thoroughly mid-twentieth century, not twenty-first. When I first came to London in the 1970s it felt quaint and old-fashioned, like it hadn't quite emerged out of the trauma of WWII. Now I wonder if English people feel the same way when they come to the United States. What was it that Ezra Pound wrote about Western civilization in 1920? an old bitch, gone in the teeth.

6 comments:

Dave Reid said...

It saddens me to hear what we've all known is true, that we are falling behind.

Matt L said...

yeah and their cell phones are better too... shoot, even the Hungarian train system runs better and more frequent service than Amtrack. And they just emerged a decade ago from state socialism!

Chas S. Clifton said...

I've ridden the British trains, most recently four years ago, and while people there complain, to Americans they are great.

That said, it's easy to have an up-to-date rail network in a nation the size of Oregon.

Compare Canada: the cross-country train is basically a tourist ride for retired travelers in no hurry.

Compare Russia ...

kestenbaum said...

One backward aspect of European countries that American travelers complain of: the prevalence of cigarette smoking is so high there that it's reminiscent of the U.S. fifty years ago.

The U.S. is way ahead of most other countries in recognizing the health hazard of smoking, and doing something about it.

The Economist is a fine publication, but the British editors can't seem to understand Americans' attitudes toward smoking. Somoe of their articles on the topic have been hilariously tone-deaf.

Steve Conn said...

I can report that the Brits, at any rate, have caught up on the smoking issue. No smoking on trains, in restaurants etc. Along the heavily-Arab Edgware Road, the hookahs have all been moved out onto the sidewalk to comply with the laws. And cigarette packages in Britain are now wrapped in a label which reads: Smoking Kills. A lot more straightforward than the labels here.

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