Why Budapest Has Better Roads

By on June 4th, 2015

Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Why Budapest Has Better Roads

June 5, 2015


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Thirty years ago—the last time I traveled through Eastern Europe—nobody in his right mind would have favorably compared this city with Detroit. Detroit had plenty of problems, even then. But, it was a paradise compared to Bratislava, the then-moldering capital of Slovakia.

“Nobody came here when I was a student, back in the 80s,” said Martin Sloboda, standing in the middle of Bratislava’s old town square, with narrow winding streets that date to medieval times. “This was a ruin, a slum. The Communists spent nothing to improve it. Now – everybody comes here.” He wasn’t kidding. Even on a weekday morning, the streets were packed with tourists from a dozen countries, crowding into high-end cafes and buying, besides kitschy souvenirs, expensive clothing and art.

Something else has been coming, too: The world automotive industry. “We have, I think, seven automobile manufacturers here now,” said Sloboda, who has made himself a one-man tourist industry. “And now Bentley is talking about a new plant to produce luxury SUVs,” he added. Just how many automobile manufacturers have major installations in Slovakia, a country of just six million people, depends on whether you count suppliers as well as assembly plants.

But, one thing is beyond dispute: Slovakia is now the largest per capita producer of cars of any nation on the planet. And the economy of Bratislava, a city physically identical in size with Detroit, has taken off in a way nobody could have predicted. Unemployment in the region is estimated at about 5.4 percent – the same as Michigan’s. Per capita income in the Bratislava region, however, has soared to more than $33,000 a year. Two years ago, the average Detroit resident’s per capita income was $13,956, and it may be, given the city’s bankruptcy, that it has declined since.

Slovakia as a whole remains a relatively poor nation, and to some extent its capital city is an anomaly. Yet it is far from the only place in Eastern Europe that’s booming. Thirty years ago Hungary was often referred to as “the happiest barrack in the Communist camp,” because the rules against small-scale private enterprise had been loosened somewhat.

But, when I last traveled to Budapest in 1986, it was a sad, repressed place. There were some little souvenir and handicraft shops, and a sizable number of Hungarians had cars – nearly all little well-worn East German Trabis and Russian Ladas. As a journalist, I was assigned a “minder” who officially was supposed to be helping me, but was really supposed to discourage regular people from talking to me, and who gave me a hard time if I tried to take pictures of the homeless or shoddy buildings.

Today, however, Budapest is booming. The average American tourist has little idea that this city was essentially destroyed by Soviet tanks twice in little more than a decade, in 1945 and 1956. Today, the city’s population has shot past Detroit’s peak of two million and is still growing. Per capita income is also nearly double what it is in Detroit. The streets today are crowded with VWs and Fords, Audis, BMWs and a few Nissans.

Yet, cars aren’t strictly necessary for most purposes. Budapest, like Prague, has an efficient network of gleaming trams and trolleys, buses and trains. I drove all over both cities for a week without seeing anything resembling a pothole worthy of the name. The question is, why have these cities been able to reinvent themselves so successfully – while Detroit and other older industrial cities have not?

Clearly, private enterprise is a big part of the answer. But, U.S. conservatives might be startled to learn that even governments considered right-wing by European standards are committed to high rates of investment in their economy’s public sector.

Tax revenues of all kinds amount to slightly less than 27 percent of America’s gross domestic product. In Hungary, where the Fidesz Party’s government is one of Europe’s most conservative, the figure is nearly 40 percent. Try to tell Hungarians that Michigan politicians refuse to raise revenues to fix roads that are so bad they are destroying people’s cars, and they have a hard time understanding.

That, come to think of it, doesn’t make sense to me, either. This is not to say that Eastern Europe is a perfect society, by any means. There are still signs of economic and other discrimination against ethnic minorities like the Roma. I saw signs of a lingering mild anti-Semitism. But, these nations have largely overcome their pasts by confronting them, not sweeping the horror under the rug. On Budapest’s broad Andrassy Avenue, the building used by both the Nazi and Communist secret police has been turned into a shockingly honest museum of the horrors Hungarians suffered.

There are pictures and names of secret police, torturers and their victims; some of whom are still alive and among them. But, not only have these places confronted that past, over the last quarter century they’ve had to entirely reinvent economies in the wake of the collapse of Communism. Unemployment rates briefly soared as high as 20 percent. Yet with remarkable speed, these cities and countries pulled themselves together, and are making it.

The question is, if they can, why can’t we?

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a  consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.

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