What Caused The US To Fall So Rapidly In Infrastructure Rankings?

Read expert opinions on how US infrastructure projects have fallen behind on a global scale

The following question was recently posted on Quora:

What caused the US to fall so rapidly in infrastructure rankings?

For example, this Reuters article shows the US falling from #6 to #16 in about 5 years. Did the US really fall that behind by essentially doing nothing, or was it that other countries caught up?

Read the response from Isaac Gaetz, Structural Engineer, below:

I think a number of factors contribute to this phenomenon.

In no particular order:

  • With some of its infrastructure the US has a clear First mover disadvantage. Major mass transit rail systems in the US cities of New York, Chicago and Boston are among the very oldest in the world. This means systems that were developed later benefited from the the live testing that was done on US systems. For example Chicago’s Elevated train, while innovative and unique at the time it was constructed, has severely limited how the system can grow and modernize. This is particularly relevant when comparing the US to countries with have exploded economically in the last few decades, like much of South East Asia.
  • The US is very large, with a very low average population density, but pockets of high density population distributed to all major corners of the country. This means to allow personal and commercial movement between these population centers the US needs to have a massive amount of infrastructure through relatively sparsely populated areas. This is a major maintenance issue. Below is quick chart I produced from data available on Wikipedia. If you take the number of miles of road within a country and divide this population you get a sort of average number of miles per person. We can see that the red countries, like the US, Canada, Australia and Sweden have high values, while the countries in blue, like Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan have much lower values. This means, all else being equal in US, the per capita cost to maintain the road network will be much higher. For a sense of scale, South Korea’s value is roughly 1/10th that of the US.¬† In this case I’m using Roads as a proxy for all infrastructure, but it stands to reason that the US would have comparable lead in total length of power lines, water lines etc. as well. When you consider the quality of construction, the costs become even more strained (the quality and cost of a road in the US will generally be greater than an equal length of road in India, for example).
  • Maintenance vs. Expansion. Unfortunately in the US, there is often a strong push to add new infrastructure in lieu of funding maintenance of existing facilities. This exacerbates maintenance issues, as it ensures that in the future the US will be even further behind in maintaining their infrastructure. Expansion is favored because it can be doled out as more prominent pet projects and special interest work. These are the proverbial “bridge to nowhere” projects.
  • The rebound effect ensures that as the US, attempts to build its way out of traffic and congestion problems new induced demand will quickly consume the newly available capacity. Unfortunately this effect is often ignored.
  • Short term thinking. The US has adopted many short term thinking strategies that lead to long term inefficiency. For example, Chicago recently undertook a massive project to add air conditioning to all public schools under within their system. Rather than go through the greater up front expense of installing large central cooling systems for the buildings, almost universally Chicago elected to install individual window air conditioner units within the schools. The upfront cost of the window units is comparatively low, but the units themselves are less energy efficient than a central system, and the expected maintenance and replacement costs will be much higher. This short term thinking was to avoid taking the lumps of paying more money now, but it will cost the city in the long run. Short term thinking is popular among politicians because they can look good while in office and displace negatives onto the public at a later date.
  • Lack of clear direction. Leadership in the US is fickle and conflicted, resulting in contradictory infrastructure decisions. Transportation infrastructure systems in particular should be part of a cohesive and cooperative network, but instead of often placed at odds with one another. Specifically, the US tends to build massive highway projects while simultaneously trying to increase demand and quality of mass transit systems, like rail and subways. Poor zoning decisions, like minimum parking lot sizes for retail buildings, and requiring high rise buildings to have a minimum number of internal parking spaces encourage car usage, decreasing the demand and performance of mass transit systems and increasing traffic congestion. Because the US is governed on a model in which districts, wards, cities, counties and states are competitive with another, there is little or no central planning. This makes the US hyper responsive to local demands, but unable to see the forest for the trees.

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