Every year the American Society of Engineers publishes a harsh and alarmist critique of the state of American transportation infrastructure in the so-far vain hope of encouraging the United States to pay the attention to make it better. One thing I have abundantly noticed over the course of my travels recently is that there are major problems with the state of travel and transportation and that insufficient attention has been paid to them, and that those who run such systems are at the moment blissfully unaware of the state of their transportation networks, or are at least pretending to be when dealing with others. And it is also evident, at least from my own observations and discussions, that people on the front lines of transportation as transportation users or drivers, do appear to be aware of the problems that are going on even if they do not know how to fix such matters.
The difficulties of transportation can be surmised from a brief summary of my own return to Portland yesterday from Charlotte. I got up at 4 in the morning (always a bad start) in order to catch a 6AM flight to Dallas. Unfortunately, while I had told my hotel to call for a taxi to pick me up at 4:30AM, no such taxi was there and one did not arrive until nearly 5AM, when it was driven by a friendly fellow who nonetheless was full of complaints about the experience of being a taxi driver and not getting nearly enough business to pay the bills, or enough time to deliver me comfortably to the airport. When I paid for my taxi far by debit card, the driver did not see the payment because he had malfunctioning equipment and presumed that I had gotten a far for free (alas, I had not). When I got into the airport proper, I was told that my suitcase, which had been checked all the way to Portland, would need new baggage tags, and waiting for this caused the window to close for the 6AM flight and I was instead put as a standby customer on the next available to flight that left an hour and a half later. Despite a lengthy trip through security where the B gates were apparently the only busy ones in Charlotte’s airport, I was able to make my way to the gate and get a ticket on a full flight to Dallas, where a passenger had a health emergency in route and after some emergency care from another passenger who happened to be a health professional, was taken off the plane by paramedics upon the landing of our flight.
In Dallas things continued to be strange. I had been told by the check-in staff at Charlotte that I had been confirmed on the flight from Dallas to Portland, but when I checked in at the gate after a delayed flight to Seoul had taken off, I found that was not the case and I had to get another standby ticket that led me to be placed for the second time on my trip back from Jamaica in the emergency row, where I was asked four times if I was up for the duties of that spot, to which I always replied in earnest with a yes. The flight was otherwise not particularly eventful, and although all of my American flights had been full, in each of them the provided provision from the airlines was a measly plastic bag with a bottle of water, some hand wipes, and a small package of two biscotti. Let it never be said that the airline industry will not use any real or perceived crisis to demand more compliance from its passengers in cattle cars and steerage while providing less in the means of actual service.
And when I arrived in Portland, things continued to be strange. The security line for the terminal I arrived in lacked any staff at all, except for some polite but rather lazy people sitting around to watch us deplane and head to baggage claim, and this forced outbound travelers to find an alternative means of entering into the terminal through another security line that happened to be open. After getting my suitcase I passed someone else being helped by paramedics who had been having some sort of health emergency and then went out to the MAX shuttle that was temporarily ferrying MAX passengers who were at present unable to travel along the train directly to the airport. Once having arrived at the train, though, we were unable to get going, as the train would say that “the doors are closing” repeatedly, only to have the doors open once again when the driver attempted to get going, which meant that we were all told to exit the now out-of-service train to wait for the next one. As a result, instead of arriving into Portland at a bit after noon, I arrived at around 3PM, and instead of getting home with enough time to relax, I arrived at home after 5PM, with just enough time to drop my luggage and then rush off to the library to return books.
At every step of my way this morning, there were multiple issues of transportation that presented some degree of annoyance or irritation. Once again in Charlotte, as had been the case in New York City, taxi failures made it tough to get to the airport on time. Apparently the competition that taxis have faced from Uber and Lyft has left its drivers demoralized and unable to compete in terms of service to the detriment of the experience of users. The troubles of the airline industry with diminished routes, still further diminished service to irritated customers, and likely diminished profitability as well, are also well known. I had only spent the night in Charlotte in the first place because American Airlines had changed my routes and cancelled my evening connections to Dallas and then Portland in the first place, or else I would simply have flown in one go and not had to get a taxi and hotel at all. Likewise, on both my trip on the MAX to and from the airport, snafus were continually present that delayed the trip, and it seems that those responsible for dealing with transportation infrastructure are simply not doing a very good job of it, even as passengers appear to be struggling to cope with the health issues of their own lives while using the overstressed transportation networks that remain. The result is not a pretty picture.