Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The cost of being safe

Every time I come back to the U.S. I have a few days of being stunned by the differences - the empty streets with no food stands, impromptu markets, funerals or parades ! the smooth traffic moving along the loops and lanes of elegant highway with no cars ever parked on the side! the shops with no gun-toting guard posted outside! This time I started thinking about the cost of all those miles of carefully maintained roadways and highways, all the required parking lots in front of stores, all the elaborate security kept carefully out of sight to make you feel safer.

You see, in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, the kind of space and speed and convenience we take for granted in the U.S. is simply too expensive. For example, you consistently enter and exit U.S. highways via exit lanes that end in overpasses, underpasses, clover leaves, each one enormously expensive to build and maintain. They're very safe, because they allow drivers to change direction and exit rapidly (except at rush hours) without colliding with competing traffic. In El Salvador, on most highways you change direction by using a paved U-turn space in the center. You enter the highway by turning right and merging with the traffic flowing in that direction. If you want to go the other direction you wait for 500 meters or so for the next official turning space; you slow down to turn into this, wait for a clear space in traffic going the other direction, turn in that direction and speed up again. As you can imagine, this system means a frequent slowing down and turning from what should be the fast lane, so it's both dangerous and congestive. But it is light-years less expensive to construct than a system of underpasses, overpasses, and one-way exits.

Think about what those choices mean. The U.S. choice is to make speed, flow, and safety hugely important at a huge cost which most U.S. drivers never think about. The Central American choice is to spend a great deal less money for roads that are slower and not as safe, but pretty adequate to move a lot of vehicles and people from one point to another. Which is the saner choice?

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