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Our Nation's Travel Infrastructure And How It Works

As the host of the PBS series, which focuses next Wednesday night on our nation's travel infrastructure and how it works, I've had the opportunity to get an up-close look at our roads, rails, buses, air travel systems -- even ferries.
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Like many Americans, I've benefited all my life from our nation's extraordinary travel infrastructure: from riding the New York City subway system with my family as a child in Queens to riding BART during high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, from taking Metro-North Railroad from Yale Law School to visit friends in Manhattan to arguably the most important flight of my life to the Cook Islands, where I won the 13th season of the television series Survivor.

As the host of the PBS series America Revealed, which focuses on Wednesday night on our nation's travel infrastructure and how it works, I've had the opportunity to get an up-close look at our roads, rails, buses, air travel systems -- even ferries. Every day that infrastructure enables the vast majority of our nation's 310 million people to be on the move: commuting one way or another to jobs, schools, and other activities -- traveling our 4 million miles of roads, 200,000 miles of rail and 5,000 airports, taking advantage of the largest transportation system in history.

More than 11 million people use the mass transit system daily in greater New York City alone. More trains pass through Chicago than any other city in the nation. More cars operate in Los Angeles County than any other county in the nation -- 12 million in all. Yet, during my time filming America Revealed, I learned that none of those systems functions as they were intended.

The New York City subway system was designed to be even bigger but was never fully built out. Passenger trains creep into Chicago, sometimes at 10 miles per hour, because city leaders lobbied long ago to bring as many freight trains as possible through the city. One hundred years ago most people in Los Angeles traveled by streetcar, not on highways. Today the streetcar system has been eliminated, although there are now plans to build light rail on the old streetcar tracks, and the highway system is legendarily inadequate.

Typically, our nation's travel infrastructure -- even if it's adequately maintained, and much of it is in great disrepair -- is woefully outdated. I learned that airplanes still fly at times on zig-zagging courses -- from one radar tower to another -- because those towers replaced bonfires, stoked to orient early pilots. In a digital age, we are still operating on those occasions in a manner determined at a time when fire was the latest aerial technology.

What's been most striking to me, as I've crisscrossed the country taping the show, is both how dependent we Americans are on an antiquated travel system that was never even intended to function as it does and how much potential there is, with new technology, to improve it.

Some of our transportation systems -- from our highways to the New York City subway system -- represent irreplaceable assets that could never be built from scratch in this economy. Our challenge is to maintain those assets -- update them wherever possible but ensure that they continue to function efficiently.

Technology is also providing new answers: The City of Las Vegas has created a fascinating digital control system that enables traffic lights to be adjusted to reflect real-time traffic patterns -- borrowing so-called "green time" (time when the traffic light is green) from lightly used streets and spending it on streets that are jammed. It has the potential to increase traffic volume by 20% without building a single new road.

Similarly, the Federal Aviation Administration is experimenting with a new air traffic control system that uses satellite-based GPS to allow planes to fly in tighter patterns than radar alone would permit. It could enable the doubling of air traffic volume without jeopardizing safety.

Our transportation system has helped make the United States an economic superpower -- enabling our products and talents to travel efficiently throughout the country and around the world. Understanding its many dimensions and how it works is vital to ensuring public appreciation of our transportation infrastructure and its future importance to the nation.

America Revealed provides an overview for the American people that will put your own travel into a broader context and underscore the crucial role that so many Americans play in moving our nation forward.

The author, a lawyer, is the host of PBS's America Revealed airing nationally on Wednesday evenings at 10:00 p.m. Eastern through May 2.