Old, Old Glory

05/21/2015 03:05 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

"No, we can just take the train. It's faster, more reliable. We can be there in 4, 5 hours. Riskier to take a plane."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was speaking to a colleague while preparing for my first work trip to China, where I would have to travel quickly from Shanghai to Tianjin, a distance of more than 670 miles. It would have taken almost 12 hours of driving. And I had never before been on a high-speed train in any country, much less one in China.

But months later, I can now easily navigate massive distances on Chinese high-speed rail. Every train I've taken in several different cities has been exactly on time. There are clearly delineated spots to stand for boarding each passenger car, numerically and chromatically matched to your ticket. And even in the crush of Shanghai's rush hour, a city of 20 million and the world's largest by population, I can similarly make my way through the subway system and get where I need to go. Safely, and on time.

When I come home to Boston, or when I visit New York or DC, I'm more apt to pull up my Uber app than trust the timeliness of public transit. I've taken the Chinatown bus to and from these three cities. But because of price, and the fact that trains in the US are still hardly faster than cars, I still haven't taken Amtrak. Ever.

Most Americans will live and die without ever leaving the borders of the United States, considering the fact that fewer than 50% of Americans hold a passport. The reasons for this lack of wanderlust are primarily financial. But for those us privileged enough to travel elsewhere, it's impossible not to feel that the United States is a country in decline based on the physical evidence around us.

The specific details of the fatal Amtrak crash may not be directly related to a failure to invest, but we have to ask the broader, moral question: why did these people die? These people died because whether it was a safety or a budgetary or a personal failure, Amtrak as a system has failed. It has failed because we have decided that safe and affordable public transit in the United States is not a priority.

When I take the T in Boston, I run the risk not only of serious delays but also of those terrifying moments when, in the heat of summer, in an un-air-conditioned car, you end up in horror-film blackness because of an electrical failure, or a "fire" of indeterminate origin. "We'll be up and running in just a few minutes," they tell you, every few minutes, for the next thirty, while you listen to the sound of your neighbor's scared breath.

So I might drive instead, even when snowstorms render the city inoperable. This winter, public transit here shut down for a month. It took an hour just to get to a major highway, as all the streets in my neighborhood had been left half-plowed, narrowed to one lane.

When I was a student, I took the cheapest option to get to New York, the Chinatown bus, where I might find a colony of cockroaches in the seat, on a bus line soon shuttered. But on the news just this month, I watched a similar bus explode, its passengers having narrowly escaped incineration. The driver noticed smoke from the engine and swiftly evacuated.

I've driven from Boston to my home state of North Carolina on highways clogged with traffic, through bottlenecking toll booths still run by people who smile and count your change.

And air travel, as we all know, has become a series of public humiliations, where you pay a premium for human decency. I was relieved on one trip when a US airline, after losing my bags and experiencing a mechanical failure, finally transferred me to a Chinese airline.

All of these things matter because our infrastructure is how the world sees us. It's our first impression, the public face of our country. We may have recovered nominally from our recession, but we bear the scars of deep budget cuts.

"What do you think of New York?" I asked this same Chinese colleague.

"Nothing ever changes," she said. "Everything is old and run down."

Uncle Sam, heading towards his third century of life, is showing his age.

If we are to have a government, it should at least do the bare minimum of what's necessary for a modern, competitive society. Now, in 2015, a high-speed railway system and effective public transit are necessary. We cannot depend on cars when we can now travel on land at speeds far surpassing them. If we want to be the greatest country in the world, we can't look like the oldest one.

When people ask what I like most about China, I usually say that I enjoy being able to get where I need to go.

Why can't I do that here?