Metric Views has received a contribution from a reader in the USA. “Just off-the-cuff ramblings” he says, “but no less interesting for that”, we reply. With upwards of 30,000 people crossing the Atlantic each day, other readers may be able to add their own observations. (Article contributed by Jeff Gross)
For US metrication, most progress is happening below the line – out of view of the average American. Metric is a necessary part of functioning in a global economy, but that doesn’t mean it’s in view of most Americans. More rationally metric sized goods are appearing in shops, but they’re dual labelled – sometimes with the ‘US customary’Â measurementÂ first.
I’d say metric in the US is a “whatever happened to..” type of thing. It’s not front of mind. The mid-1970s era voluntary conversion attempt put it front of mind, but because the effort was voluntary and without the political will to sustain it, it failed. Unlike in Canada, there’s no legacy of metric road signs,Â metric weather forecasts or metric consumer goods to keep in place any metric progress that there was.
Despite what many in the US Metric Association say, and I’m not a member, we would need an Australian-style conversion program here to make metric stick. We have the (mis)fortune of having a large enough economy to hide metric from the vast majority of Americans.
The average American has some awareness of metric units – metres from athletics (track and field), litres from the standard 2-litre soda bottle and grams from nutrition. But metric generally seems foreign to most. Which is sad and illogical, given that US customary measures weren’t invented here either.
We’ve also squandered a recent success with the conversion of the federal and state highway agencies to metric. The idea was to induce demand for metric construction throughout the US economy. Many states had or were in the process of converting, but some language, whichÂ slid in to a highway appropriations bill (federal transportation funding mechanism) back in 2000, disabled mandatory metric. So, US-based construction companies not wanting to work in two sets of units lobbied the states to deconvert and have been largely successful. California (where I live), which was one of the last all-metric holdouts, presently has an active deconversion program. Be aware this metrication was only in the design and construction of roads – signs remained in miles and feet.
One way I can see compulsory metrication make it back on the radar in the US in the next few years is actually through construction. There’s a huge backlog of infrastructure projects needed here. If the next US President is named Obama or Clinton, there may be a federal push towards rebuilding infrastructure as part of rebuilding the US economy. It’s an opportunity – might as well rebuild the infrastructure right (using metric) the first time. If the next President is McCain or (shudder) Huckabee, we’ll continue to spend way too much money on defence.