Our frustration with rail and road networks.

I spent last week in Germany and it’s a machine. That is the problem. Machines relay actions in a linear and inflexible fashion. The piston turns the cam shaft that turns this cog and that cog and so on down the line to the wheels. But if any piece along the line doesn’t work there’s no way around. The motor at one end and the wheels at the other may both be 100% but the machine they’re a part of will be totally useless.

I had my first experience of the famed Autobahn and being overtaken by someone driving at close to 300. The autobahn is one machine I don’t want to see fail—not with my own eyes. I’ll spare you the gruesome shots. Here’s one to make the point, again, that there’s no way around when any piece fails.

Aerial view showing stuck cars on the highway A31 near Heek, westnorthern Germany on November 19, 2011 after an accident involved 52 cars. Three people died in the accident probably caused by the fog in the November 18 night. AFP PHOTO / CARMEN JASPERSEN++++ GERMANY OUTI’m happy enough with the odds of surviving to travel by rail though. It was with the same sense of industrial sublime wonder that people had in the days of the steam train that I looked at my soup staying perfectly still though it was moving faster than the aforementioned car.


Just as impressive was the itinerary that itemised every departure and arrival platform and time of 4 trains and one one bus, from Lindau to Amsterdam, right down to the walking time from the bus stops. It was impressive until one train was delayed by something else shunting and the whole schedule had to be thrown out the window. It reminded me that a train network is a machine, the way Germany is a machine.

The great thing about being on a ship on the ocean or a bike on the ground, is you’re not a part of a system where every piece stops if one falters.

I’m back in Amsterdam now where I don’t even stop for red lights. If I can’t run it, I’ll detour, which I can because every gap between buildings has bike infrastructure. I rode out to Bijlmer today, to check it all out, and the whole way maybe put my foot down no more than five times.


Amsterdam is not a machine—it just has some, that’s all. If you’re not on a train though, or in a car, you feel like a part of a root system. There is always some way around.