What Would an Icelandic Volcano Do to American Transportation?

I’m stuck in Berlin on an indefinite journey that was supposed to end today, were it not for the interference of an Icelandic volcano known as Eyjafjallajokull.

Before we get to that, a little perspective. I’ve just finished a fantastic week-long tour of Frankfurt and Berlin, organized by the Ecologic Institute, an EU think tank, to study examples of German green building. We had the opportunity to visit Deutsche Bank’s renovated LEED Platinum headquarters, talk finance with KFW, a development bank whose sustainable ideals impressed the whole group, travel the high speed ICE train, talk policy with high level ministers and a lot more. I’ll be spending the next week telling you all about it.

But here I am, with some unexpected time on my hands in one of Europe’s greatest cities. The volcano and the stranding of literally millions of people is the talk of the town, as it seems to be in the US judging by the emails and text messages I’ve been getting. Nonetheless, intra-European travel has only been moderately affected as people take to (somewhat overcrowded) trains and carpools. Many have reflected on how nice and quiet things are without jets landing above their homes. And most, my group included, are taking it all in stride. Chris Hume of the Toronto Star, who was part of the trip, points out that, “There are worse places in the world to be stuck.” And with readily available Internet, communication is hardly a problem.

But what would happen in the United States, given a similar shutdown?

Lest our memories fade, we experienced the same thing in the days following 9/11 — a time when rental cars sold out across the nation, and most people eventually found their ways home, if not by car, then by bus or Amtrak over the course of many days. It certainly wasn’t an easy task with little other than hope and people’s goodwill to bank on. At that time, there were feeble voices who clamored to bring attention to the fact that our rail and non-car transportation system was woefully incapable of anything other than bare-bones service and that 9/11 should have been a wake up call to reinvest in alternative modes — if for no other reason than to serve as a backup to a vulnerable airline system.

In fact, here in Germany, this was a major topic of conversation on our trip (even before the eruption). Despite a per-capita car ownership that matches that of the United States, virtually no German is more than a short bike ride from a fast and modern train or tram system, and vastly higher numbers bike, walk or take trains to work. Cities large and small are connected by speedy and clean services that always give you the option of getting where you need to without driving. What is it that drives this different prioritization? High gas prices might have kicked it off, but a much deeper commitment to transit and walkable development keeps it going.

If the US air travel system were to shut down again for a week or so, we’d see virtually nothing learned in the 10 years since 9/11. We’d manage, but it would be painful, crowded and slow — much worse than this week’s European situation. Fortunately, many US cities are crawling forward with improved transit services, and federal funds have been released that will at least start moving some parts of the country out of the stone age with regards to high speed rail. In many cities, bikes are again being given paths and businesses are giving them prime parking.

We’re on the right track (so to speak), but US business still has a long way to go. Judging by the hilariously backward reaction on the National Manufacturer’s Association’s blog, Shopfloor.org to Ray LaHood’s recent bicycle initiative, some elements of business have a long way to go. With the economic cost of congestion in the billions, Americans increasingly stressed out and overweight, and an air travel system that’s one volcanic eruption away from shutting down, it’s just plain bad business to stand in the way of non-car, non-plane infrastructure.

Ironically, our volcano is predictable. As the US Army recently illustrated, big increases in the cost of gasoline are likely and coming soon. Businesses who cooperate with government initiatives to build for transit, and who locate their facilities in places where non car alternatives are possible stand to whether this coming storm. Likewise, those who invest in energy efficiency (not just for transportation, but buildings too) stand to reap huge rewards on their investments. Those who kick and scream now will be another story in the years to come…

Auf Wiedersehen!

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

8 responses

  1. I would think we would also want to know about population density in this discussion. Germany has about 600 people per square mile, the United States has about 83 people per square mile. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_
    How can we possibly develop a similar transportation system when we are 7 times less dense than Germany? Most of the United States was developed after the automobile was invented and our cities have developed to match this freedom. Most European cities, on the other hand, are hundreds of years old, existing long before the automobile and therefore are denser and more able to accommodate and embrace mass transit. Consider the whole country, we will never be as dense as Germany, so instead we might have to identify pockets near major metropolitan areas and increase the density of those areas along with the mass transportation options? I'm not sure what the solution is, but it will be difficult to just copy what Europe has done.

  2. The developed areas of the Unites States are not that much less dense than Germany. Toss out Alaska, Nevada and other rural western states and the number gets much closer to that of Germany. You're correct about city development, however. That's a chicken & egg problem now, it'll take 50-100 years to correct it, but it already improves itself naturally as transit gets developed – ie, clusters of denser development within walking/biking distance of stations.

  3. We got stuck in the northern UK during the Volcano madness while filming for the website. We have never seen the rail network up there so busy lol…I imagine it reminded a lot of people about the quick safe alternative in case of an emergency.

  4. We got stuck in the northern UK during the Volcano madness while filming for the website. We have never seen the rail network up there so busy lol…I imagine it reminded a lot of people about the quick safe alternative in case of an emergency.

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