A National Comparison to Washington D.C.’s Infrastructure17 Oct 2023, Posted in All Posts, Blog Posts
When our Founding Fathers picked ten square miles of swampland on the Northern bank of the Potomac River to house the budding nation’s capital, none of them could imagine what it would look like today. Washington D.C. currently sits as an urban jewel that for some marks the border between the American South and Northeast. The district now encompasses a little under seventy square miles and houses over 700,000 residents making it one of the densest big cities in the United States.
Strangely enough, this is fairly unrepresentative of the rest of the United States. Outside of the many parks and green spaces that are scattered throughout the district, one won’t find large swaths of open undeveloped space. You won’t find diverging diamonds or very many freeways running through the city center. D.C. is one of the very few American cities that actually has an expansive and robust public transportation system. The city streets not only cater to cars, but several have long stretches of protected bike lanes, wide and signalized crosswalks, and you may even see someone using one of the many public electric scooters to get to where they need to go.
I’m writing this in my summer apartment building that myself and several other college students from across the country are staying in for an internship program. With perspectives ranging from Los Angeles to Boston, and even some international students from Europe, I wanted to ask my peers what they thought of the infrastructure in D.C. compared to what they may be used to back home or in other places they’ve stayed.
One of the first questions respondents were asked was “How many times a day do you think about infrastructure?”, to which most of answered never or maybe once or twice. To then add a bit of a juxtaposition, I asked “How dependent do you think you are on infrastructure?”, to which everyone answered along the lines of wholeheartedly and that infrastructure is essential to living comfortably. It makes sense that something as omnipresent and important as infrastructure doesn’t get thought of very frequently, but people can recognize how crucial it is. Most of us don’t ponder where the water comes from every time they turn on the faucet despite our lives depending on our ability to access it, infrastructure is no different and in some ways is how we get our water.
At this point in the interviews, I started to move more into asking about the interviewee’s personal experiences with infrastructure with the question “What is your preferred method of transit in DC?”. Everyone answered the Metro, with a few participants also including biking and walking as methods they enjoy.
This for the most part set the theme for the rest of the interviews, since the focus on everyone’s minds turned to transportation. I did try in the first few interviews to get participants to talk about their experiences with other forms of infrastructure. However, many of them struggled thinking of any parts of infrastructure that didn’t have to do with transportation, which makes sense when you remember that transportation is the most prevalent form of infrastructure that we encounter and have to think about on a daily basis. This could be a takeaway in it of itself, why don’t we think more about topics such as where our energy comes from, where our water lines run, or all the details that go into designing the buildings we live and work in?
Moving into the comparative theme I set out to highlight with this project, I asked participants “What is your preferred method of transit back at home?”. Participants hailed from Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Paris, both sides of Kansas City, Chicago, and even the Netherlands just to name a few. Most of the American respondents said that they use a car back where they’re from simply because it’s the only viable option they have. A few mentioned local public transit systems they use, but the majority use the roads. The international respondents gave answers similar to the previous question: walking, biking, and the train.
When asked to rate DC’s infrastructure, most respondents gave overall positive reviews alongside ratings of about 6-8. When asked to rate the infrastructure in other places they’ve lived, the answers varied. A few respondents said they enjoyed some of the features their hometown offers, while others said they were merely comfortable with the infrastructure back home, rating it in the middle at around a 5. When asked to rate America’s overall infrastructure the reviews were also mixed. Respondents had positive things to say about the United States’ expansive highway system but said that the United States lacks in trains compared to European countries.
To conclude the interviews, I asked each participant what they would change about DC and America’s infrastructure. For DC, participants said they would like to see the Metro expanded, improved sidewalks, more bicycle infrastructure, to name a few. For America, several respondents said they would like to see more public transit or a nationwide high-speed rail network. Other respondents talked about making America’s infrastructure more accessible to those who may be disabled or don’t own a car.
The American Society for Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a C- grade which I would say is equivalent to the rating my peers also gave. The ASCL translates a C grade into infrastructure that is “mediocre and needs attention”. This most likely refers to the sheer number of bridges, roads, pipelines, etc. around the country that haven’t been updated or even touched in decades.
The United States is undeniably a developed nation that leads the pack on several international fronts and indexes, but currently the World Economic Forum ranks the US 13th in terms of infrastructure. The Biden Administration pledged that with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act America would fix the bridges, roads, and pipelines while also establishing robust networks of clean-energy public transit. While there are some parts of the bill that have already been set into motion, such as funding for local networks of electric buses, we will have to wait and see if the rest of these promises come to fruition in the hopes of raising the country’s infrastructure above mediocrity.
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Written by Jake Smith, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.