Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Travel Troubles Point to Infrastructure Neglect

This week’s travel tie-ups in Europe — occurring because of cold weather and snow, for the third winter in a row — highlight the fragility of our travel system. The transportation network leans on hundreds of weak nodes. These stations and corridors operate close to the point of failure on ordinary days. They can fail when anything out of the ordinary happens, overloading hundreds of nearby points in the network.

Heathrow is getting special attention this week as snowfall is having a disproportionate effect on the airport’s operations, preventing perhaps 50,000 ticket-holding travelers from getting home for Christmas. Last weekend’s storm produced unusually heavy snow, but it was nothing like a catastrophic weather event, so travelers and officials are wondering why the airport remains mostly closed after five days. Of course, the problems are not limited to Heathrow, and snow-related cancellations are clogging travel for hours at a time around Britain and across northwestern Europe.

Many of the problems cannot really be blamed on the weather, but are the effect of ill-advised cost-cutting. Budgeteers should be more zealous in protecting the most essential activities, particularly the ones that allow ordinary workers to work. The £1 million (or whatever the amount is) missing from Heathrow’s ice and snow budget might have felt good at budget time, but is tiny compared to the productivity lost when tens of thousands of people are stranded for five days at a time.

But more than that, a more robust network should be put together, not just in transportation but also in communications. The recent tendency is to cut budgets for transportation and communications infrastructure when the economy slows, but the opposite strategy would be a better approach. In the United States, when the job market finally improves, the rush hour traffic will be even worse than before, as virtually nothing has been done to add capacity in the interim. An economic slowdown should be a time to solve the most pressing infrastructure problems so that when the economic recovery comes, it will not be stopped in its tracks by a lack of capacity.