Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On Why Roads are Worse in the US than in Europe.

This summer, while in the United-States I did something I hardly ever do: I biked. I’m always biking in Europe but never in the United-States, but since I was in a small town in America’s heartland, I decided to give it a try.  Duluth, MN is not such a fun place for biking because it is so hilly.

But what bothered me the most was not that terrain but the pavement quality. Biking is a great way to have a better sense of the quality of the road pavement and it was a great reminder of something I’ve experienced over the years – that roads are in worse shape in the United States than in France or even Europe. Only you feel it more on your bike (and in your butt) than when you’re driving. And it can even get dangerous when you are taking speed downhill, especially if you can’t see the crevices because of bad public lighting (but that’s a whole new topic I’m not even going to get into).  
And for once, the regional differences in the US do not really matter, whether on the west or the east coast, in the north, in the south or in the middle, it is all pretty bad and certainly worse than in Western Europe. I have always wondered why that was.

Whenever I asked, people would tell me it was because of more extreme weather (in the Midwest) or earthquakes (in California). For some reason I was not entirely satisfied with those answers. If I can see why earthquakes may affect the road, and California may have more of them than anywhere in Western Europe; the weather excuse did not seem to be enough. After all, the French Alps can get very hot and very cold, yet the roads there are still in better shape.

Then I was reminded of an article I read a few months ago in the Economist : it showed that American traffic congestion is worse than western Europe’s and that the road fatality rate is 60% above the OECD average, but even more interestingly, it also showed that “total public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at 2.4% of GDP. Europe, by contrast, invests 5% of GDP in its infrastructure”.
There is no secret: it is a question of how much money you’re ready to put in infrastructure, and it is also about whether you want a quick fix or long term investment. Americans spend more money building new roads but less maintaining them.

By doing a little bit more research, I found out that the building material used for roads also make a huge difference. According to this professional site:
European pavement construction stresses high-quality design, material, and construction, in contrast to the U.S. objectives of lower first cost and shorter construction time.

Here’s a more detailed explanation:
France, like the rest of Europe, has over the past few decades made a concerted effort to build roads with an eye to the long haul-to spend early to avoid spending more later. 
They mix their asphalt with additives-rubber, carbon, polyethylene-to a far greater extent than Americans do. And they make wide use of new technologies like Novophalt, a polymer-modified asphalt binder that gives cement more flexibility and thus increases the pavement's service life. Novophalt, which Europeans began using enthusiastically in 1976, costs between 4 and 8 percent more than traditional asphalt, but it lengthens the pavement's life between 50-100 percent. Does this daring approach work? Don't take our word for it. 
Last year, visitors to Europe from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reported, "The extreme forms of distress that are evident in many parts of the United States-rutting, raveling, cracking, and potholes-were, simply, rarely seen.". (article here)

(Here’s a more technical report on the warm-mixed asphalt used in Europe if you’re interested in details.)

Not only do European countries invest more of their public money, but also “get the private sector to carry part of the weight”. More importantly, stricter regulations are enforced: “contractors in virtually all European countries must guarantee their work for up to five years after completion. When they screw it up, they fix it up-a concept positively foreign to the builders of American roads”.
The best contractor is not always the cheapest one, but unfortunately, to get U.S. federal money to build new roads, a state must by law choose the lowest bidder.

This road pavement issue is significant beyond the topic of infrastructure. It shows what is wrong with politics in America – a reliance on cheap quick ‘popular’ solutions and a lack of vision and guts of its political leaders. Unfortunately, as the debt ceiling debate has recently shown, the rise of populism is only going to make the situation worse. It is not any time soon that warm-mixed asphalt will be used in the US. If anything, you can only expect American roads to get worse since no investment in in infrastructure seems to be in the air these days. 

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