NYC: 1st-class city, 3rd-class infrastructure, and what it means for the rest of us

America’s failure to invest in its infrastructure is a national disgrace. I think most of us can agree on that. But it’s very hard to get people riled up enough about it to demand a change.

Recently, I was in New York City for a few days. Being there made me think about the issue in a more personal way.  While there, I took a new look at the city’s subway system, a massive piece of infrastructure that was an essential part of my daily routine for more than thirty years.

New York City. Not everyone loves it as much as I do. But can we agree that New York is one of the world’s greatest cities and that it exerts more influence on American business, culture, media, literature, and art than any other place on the continent?  Can we acknowledge that the city’s outsized influence extends far beyond our national borders?

New York City is home to more than 8 million pushy, hyperactive, trend-obsessed individuals. Of those 8 million, over 5.3 million ride the subway every day. New York’s system, with its 468 stations, is the most extensive in the world and the most cost efficient in the country.  And it’s hard to find many other mass-transit systems that beat its efficiency as a people mover twenty-four-seven.

The statistics for New York’s subway system are off the charts.  One in every three American users of mass transit rides on one of New York’s twenty-four subway lines.  Those high rates of use make New York one of the most energy efficient cities in America. In 2008 (the last year for which stats are available), because New Yorkers chose to ride collectively on subway cars rather than driving solo on the highway, 1.8 billion gallons of oil were saved, and 11.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide did not get spewed into the atmosphere.

What this means in the big picture is that the massive ridership of New York’s subway system helps ameliorate America’s overall contribution to some of the primary causes of climate change. (Read that again, California!)

So why is that it that despite incremental investment over the years into one of America’s premier infrastructure assets, its stations are still filthy, poorly lit, and poorly maintained? Tiles still fall off walls. Pockmarked ceilings go unrepaired.  Mothers with babies strapped into strollers have no alternative but to lug their precious cargo dangerously up and down multiple flights of stairs. When you see that bit of craziness, you’ve got to shake your head and ask: What century is this?

And those inconveniences aren’t the worst of it.

America’s first-class city with its third-class infrastructure is on track for one hundred subway deaths in 2013.   Over the last decade, subway riders have witnessed an average of thirty to forty track suicides per year.  What a shame.  Those tragedies were and are preventable—if only.

If only we’d invest in technology already in use throughout Europe and Asia, like the systems in London, Paris, Barcelona, Saint Petersburg, Singapore, Taipei, and Toronto, where platform screens or edge doors have been installed for the protection of riders in mass-transit stations.

If only we’d recognize the value of public transportation. If only we’d have a national commitment and political will to invest in our own country’s infrastructure. If only our politicians would fight for investing in safer public spaces and services and the well-paying, non–outsourceable jobs that would surely follow from that commitment.

The point is that our inability to adequately maintain and improve a public-transportation system located in the world’s most influential city is indicative of the broader failure to commit the resources to maintain and improve infrastructure in communities of all sizes across the country.

And if you dismiss this argument because you think this is just a New York problem, think again.  Even if you’ve never taken a ride on the subway or never will, similar neglect of infrastructure where you live is costing you dearly. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, in 2010 the national price tag for infrastructure neglect was $130 billion. For a family of four, the share of that price tag would be the equivalent of purchasing groceries for five months.

So look around your community. It’s your mass-transit systems, bridges, tunnels, roadways, water and wastewater systems, railroad tracks, airports, electric grids, dams, levies, canals, and ports that are falling apart. You name it.  We’re neglecting it. And, according to the engineers, “it’s only projected to get worse.”

This lack of investment affects so much: our safety, our jobs and productivity, our economy, the future of how our children and grandchildren will flourish or not, and our economic competiveness in the global economy.  So, back to my original question: What are we going to do about it?