In Europe, social planning eases infrastructure policy

Why can't Americans come together over infrastructure policy? And why must the car dominate discussion? It's part of our aversion to social planning, Russell Shorto writes.

A common debate in the journalism profession is determining a balance between writing what readers want to read and writing what you think is good for a reader. Because you often want to know step-by-step how to install a solar panel on your home, but you may also enjoy a lengthy dive into why they're not more popular -- even if you didn't expressly ask for it.

The same conflict occurs in the elected official: do what the people want, or do what you think is good for them? In the United States we lean heavily, though not completely, on the word "representative" for our particular flavor of democracy. We expect our elected officials to do what we ask, even though the structure of our government allows them, by design, to disregard popular opinion from time to time under the premise that the people don't always know what's best for them.

That distinction is one major reason why Americans, God love 'em, have such a hard time agreeing to wide-sweeping policy, from healthcare to social security to -- you guessed it -- infrastructure. Because when our economy is in the dumps, we don't like hearing about new high-speed rail lines, even if they will truly be a benefit. The dissonance is too great.

Russell Shorto, author of "The Island at the Center of the World," wrote in the New York Times Sunday Review last week that a major reason Europe might be so far along in its bicycle riding and public transit ventures is simply because they're more accepting of social planning.

Simply, Americans don't have the midset to support multi-modal transportation reform; we're too "practical" and "no-nonsense." And our lives, from pre-packaged foods to manners and expectations, reinforce it.

Shorto writes:

To give a small but telling example, pointed out to me by my friend Ruth Oldenziel, an expert on the history of technology at Eindhoven University, Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind. Likewise, every Dutch child has to pass a bicycle safety exam at school. The coexistence of different modes of travel is hard-wired into the culture.

This in turn relates to lots of other things — such as bread. How? Cyclists can’t carry six bags of groceries; bulk buying is almost nonexistent. Instead of shopping for a week, people stop at the market daily. So the need for processed loaves that will last for days is gone. A result: good bread.

Americans remains "manacled to the car," Shorto writes -- and it's because we're not built to support overall livability, just singular ventures (a new highway, a new bridge).

And while there are downsides to Dutch-style policies -- Shorto references frustration at his inability to purchase a lightbulb after 6 p.m. -- it may not be a bad idea to slowly dismantle the mid-century perception of a car as an extension of individual freedom.

Because in the city, your two feet are just as sufficient to take you wherever you like.

The Dutch Way: Bicycles and Fresh Bread [Sunday Review]

Photos: Illustration using photos by Peter De Wit/Flickr.

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