Brooke Wisdom

November 1, 2010

Planes, Trains and the Autobahn

By Therese Dunphy

A recent jaunt to Germany drove home the condition of U.S. infrastructure conditions. I recently traveled to the Bavarian region of Germany for a combination of work and pleasure. It was an opportunity to soak in the area’s history and longevity while touring cities and villages that were built to last for hundreds of years. Like many tourists, I rate travel destinations based on criteria such as ambience, food, and lodging, but also tend to scrutinize mobility, congestion, and road conditions.

During the course of the trip, I flew through three U.S. airports and two international airports. For the most part, all the airports functioned as expected. The flights were mostly on schedule, and none included long delays on the tarmac. I viscerally disliked London’s Heathrow Airport where gate locations were posted at the last minute and shopping options included loads of upscale retail, but I couldn’t get a quick bite to eat to save my life.

At home, I rarely travel by train, unless visiting a major U.S. city such as Chicago or Washington, D.C. While in Stuttgart, however, I found that train travel was the easiest way to get from one urban destination to another. Although German is not in my repertoire of languages, it was simple to purchase train tickets and get to the right location (at least most of the time). And, between narrow city streets that were designed long before mid-sized rental cars and expensive parking, trains offered an easy, economic alternative. It made me reconsider a long-held disdain of public transport.

Of course, I couldn’t imagine traveling to Germany without driving on the Autobahn, and it was certainly a highlight for this road junkie. German drivers displayed discipline and order. Trucks were marked with stickers indicating their allowable travel speeds, and they stayed in the right lane. Cars never passed on the right, followed speed limits when posted, and demonstrated precision when speeds were not limited. I found that 160 kilometers per hour in a Mercedes traveling the Autobahn feels remarkably like 55 miles per hour in a Taurus on an American highway.

Aside from the obvious difference in driving speeds, the German highway featured deep bases, smooth top coats, and a degree of maintenance I haven’t seen in years along U.S. highways. Maybe the sense of history that comes with being in the ‘Old World’ was a factor, but throughout this trip, it was obvious that roads, like homes, were built to last. Coming home to a deteriorating U.S. infrastructure system, it was sadly apparent that the ‘New World’ is clearly behind the times when it comes to investing in and maintaining its roads.

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