People ride D.C.'s Metrorail system the day after a train filled with smoke, leading to the death of one woman. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

As hundreds of thousands of D.C. commuters tried to get to work on Wednesday during a 24-hour Metrorail shutdown for an emergency safety inspection, many might have wondered: Why is our infrastructure system so broken?

These five lessons from abroad might help understand what is going wrong in the United States.

1. Germany has highways for bikes

German autobahns are renowned all over the world for having no general speed limit. Now, the country is at the forefront of a new kind of highway — for bikes. German engineers recently finished construction on the first section of what will become a 62-mile network of bike highways in and around the Western German city of Duisburg.

2. Switzerland, ranked the country with the world's best infrastructure, shows that good infrastructure depends on political commitment


Journalists walk through an emergency tunnel during a media visit near the town of Sedrun, Switzerland, on Thursday. (REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)

According to the World Economic Forum, Switzerland has the world's best infrastructure, even though everyone who has been to the country in the center of Europe knows that its mountainous landscape is far from being perfect to build modern infrastructure systems.

For every highway or train line, construction workers need to tunnel through mountains and hills. Having one of the world's highest transport system densities, Switzerland primarily proves that it is governmental commitment to infrastructure that makes the difference.

3.  Money matters — and banks aren't much interested in long-term projects

Given the United States' size, developing countries like India or China might be a better comparison than Switzerland. Writing in the Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins argues that it's all about money. Infrastructure projects often face financing gaps because banks have abandoned the idea of financing such long and massive projects. "This is partly a result of a shrunken risk appetite across banking. It is also thanks to tougher capital charges on such assets, imposed by global regulators," Jenkins writes.

4. In Copenhagen, you can travel on a driverless metro running 24/7

One does not have to change the entire banking and financing system to improve American infrastructure, though. The example of Copenhagen shows that smaller steps might be equally helpful. The Copenhagen metro runs 24/7 because it operates without drivers.

5. This Japanese train could get you from San Francisco to New York City in seven hours


The Maglev (magnetic levitation) train is seen on an experimental track in Tsuru, west of Tokyo, in May 2010. The train set a world speed record on April 21, 2015, in a test run near Mount Fuji, clocking 375 miles an hour. (KATORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan's magnetic-levitation trains set a new world record last year when they reached 375 miles per hour on a test run. That means travelers could go from San Francisco to New York City in only seven hours because the trains do not touch the steel tracks because of magnetic power.

The "bullet" trains are primarily a prestige project. Critics have said the expensive investment makes little sense for a country like Japan that has a rapidly aging and declining population. Last year, U.S. officials appeared to show interest in implementing a similar system between Washington and Baltimore.

There's still hope for commuters in and around D.C.