Not so Down and Out in Paris and London

Comparing public transportation in Europe and America provides one more example of the lack of political will and vision in Washington.

One of the themes of Michael Moore's new movie Sicko is that Britain's health care system is far superior to America's. As someone intimately familiar with both, I can acknowledge they each have strengths and weaknesses, but I, for one, find the American system preferable. I have good insurance and greater Washington is well served by excellent medical facilities. However, when it comes to social services, especially public transportation, Europe beats the United States hands down.

These contrasts were apparent on recent visits to four very different EU cities-Ljubljana, Budapest, Munich and London. What impress a visitor in Ljubljana, Budapest and Munich are the large, virtually car-free city centers with numerous pedestrian walkways, dedicated bicycles paths and excellent tram services. They are a delight to walk around. The priority given to "green" policies is further highlighted by the endless rows of separately colored containers for recycling glass bottles, plastic containers and tin cans.

London, the largest city in Europe, has been plagued for years with poor suburban train and bus service and a crippled underground system, but the efforts of the flamboyant mayor of London, "Red" Ken Livingstone-which include a congestion charge for private automobiles entering the center of the city during the peak daytime hours-have begun to pay off. The taxed area has just been doubled and the impact on day-to-day traffic is noticeable. Bus service has improved with modern fleets of double-deckers serving multiple routes stopping at covered bus stops with digital timetables indicating bus frequencies and arrival times. The suburban trains have gotten much better and on November 14 the last section of high-speed train track from Paris to London will be completed with the opening of the new rail terminal at St. Pancras International. EuroStar trains will then be able to travel from London to Paris in two and one-quarter hours-and to Brussels in less than two hours-should further erode the appeal of short-distance air flights. If one adds to this picture the ongoing expansion of fast-rail networks throughout Europe, the comparison with the United States and its antiquated Amtrak system is painful to witness.

By 2008, the new Madrid-Barcelona high-speed trains will reduce travel times from seven and two and one-half hours. France has further expanded its high-speed network with a new service linking Paris to twenty French cities as well as Luxemburg, Stuttgart and Zurich. Switzerland has just opened the world's third-longest tunnel, the Loetschberg tunnel through the Alps, reducing travel time from Germany and Italy by ninety minutes. A second tunnel under the Gothard Mountains will link Italy and Switzerland to the northern European high-speed rail network.

The United States only has one high-speed train service, the Acela, which runs between Washington, New York and Boston. Acela is not as comfortable or fast as its European and Japanese counterparts. There are no ongoing plans to build more high-speed trains services in the United States for reasons for financial and political reasons. In contrast, fast train lines are being constructed in China, Korea and Taiwan in addition to Europe. The only encouraging news for the United States is that popular politicians such as Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Mayors Bloomberg in New York and Villaraigosa in Los Angeles are way ahead of the federal government in their desire to see improvements in pubic services, including public transportation environmental concerns.

Europe and the European Union are frequently ridiculed by Americans, particularly neoconservatives, as being soft on everything from terrorism to the use of force; in some respects these criticisms are fair. But when it comes to the quality of life, Europeans have much to make Americans envious. It is one more example where the lack of political will and vision in Washington is causing the United States to fall further behind in meeting the technical challenges of the future. What is especially grievous is that the United States has the technology and the smarts to be world leader in the very areas where it is now lagging.

Geoffrey Kemp is director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center.