Journalist Edward Humes discusses the impact of our get-it-now attitude on the transportation system.
Our transportation system underlies all of modern life, playing a vital role in everything from getting us our morning cup of coffee to moving us to our jobs to bringing yesterday’s Amazon order to our door. But it’s something we tend to take for granted until things go wrong — heavy traffic, air travel delays or roadway collapses. And because we’ve failed to invest in keeping our system robust, those events happen more and more often. Meanwhile, transportation is undergoing major shifts — with new technologies and upgraded methods. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes looked at this unique world in his book Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. He joined the Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to talk about where it is all heading.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge@Wharton: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Edward Humes: I think I was just dreading being on the highway. I started looking into what it takes to keep my own family and household going, and it really isn’t just the commute that we all dread — that’s the least of it. There are millions of miles embedded in our daily lives. The cup of coffee I’m holding in my hand right now took 30,000 miles to reach me, and that’s just for the beans, not the cup or the water or the filter or any of the other parts of the coffee-drinking process. If you look at anything in your home, you’re going to see a footprint that big, or even bigger.
Knowledge@Wharton: This is a book that’s not just about our highways and our railroad systems; this is about, in some respects, the business of transportation on a variety of different fronts.
Humes: It is. It’s the business side, and it’s the human side of it. There’s a cast of thousands behind that cup of coffee as well — the people at the port, the truckers who pick it up at the port, people who maintain the highway that the truckers drive on, and the drivers on that highway that are financing that roadbed, and on and on. It’s a chain of interconnectivity that really is reaching a crossroads because, in some ways, we can’t afford to maintain what we have, and yet the technology is evolving, changing, growing and making more demands on what we have.
Knowledge@Wharton: You bring up an interesting point. The technology is developing, yet there are so many issues in the transportation end of it, the construction end of it, the supply chain end of everything. This has almost become — even though the government has kind of pushed it off in some respects — a 24/7 365 process.
“Every time traffic delays the average UPS route a minute it costs $12.5 million. And they’re adding minutes all the time.”
Humes: Oh yes. One of the people I write about in the book was the head of UPS in the Los Angeles area: Noel Massie, amazing guy. Here’s a company that moves over 15 million deliveries to our doorsteps every day. He’s a leader in the delivery space, and he’s tearing his hair out — every time traffic delays the average UPS route a minute, that minute costs the company $12.5 million. And they’re adding minutes all the time. It’s the hidden cost of e-commerce. You click on “buy it now,” and you think, “Hey, this is convenient. Amazon is going to deliver me a package by tomorrow, or maybe the same day.” What none of us really get is that we’re creating a truck trip every time we do that. And it’s accelerating. It’s making more traffic. E-commerce is a hidden contributor to traffic. And we’re so in love with it, but we’re not really in love with paying for expanding the capacity of our transportation system to handle those trucks.
Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of the technology — at some point, we will most likely have drones doing part of the delivery process.
Humes: I just don’t see a future where little drones are flying to our doorstep.
Humes: But I do know that the delivery companies around the world are lusting after drones, but not little ones — big ones, 747-sized drones. That’s where they see unmanned aircraft as the next disruption and provider of efficiency, lower costs — obviously, because they’re eliminating humans — and also more safety.
Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about the highways for a second, because you’re out there in California and you write at the outset of the book about the issues of the Interstate 405 freeway out there. Here in Philadelphia, we have some of the same types of issues with Interstate 95. What is it about the 405 freeway — and obviously the traffic volume is a big part of it — that is maddening to you?
Humes: It is an example of a larger phenomenon. Elon Musk … calls it “soul killing.” And a lot of drivers say the number 405 stands for the four or five mile an hour average speed that you can travel on it during peak hours. It really is like that, too.
“This is a road where $1.4 billion was spent to add a lane onto a 10-mile stretch. … After it was completed, traffic was worse.”
This is a road where $1.4 billion was spent to add a lane onto a 10-mile stretch, a critical portion of this very busy and important freeway. The idea was to ease congestion. After it was completed, traffic was worse, because when you add lanes, what you really are doing is just inviting more cars to come to the party. Adding capacity without changing the driving behavior, without providing some kind of incentive or disincentive to drive at peak times doesn’t work. It’s been proven over and over again around the country.
And the cool part about the 405 freeway was this event called “Carmageddon,” when they had to close down that same 10-mile stretch for a period of 53 hours in order to knock down some bridges so they could add that lane. During that 53 hours, traffic throughout Los Angeles got better — congestion eased because people changed their behavior. When you can get people to drive differently, or not drive, or drive at a different time, that’s how you improve traffic without adding lanes. That’s the secret sauce.
Knowledge@Wharton: So it really does start with the people that are involved in this process on a day-to-day basis?
Humes: Yes. Half the cars on the road at rush hour aren’t driving to work. They’re elective trips for something that’s not job-related. Which means if you can get people to defer those trips, to do them earlier or later, and there are ways to do that, we can eliminate traffic without a single bulldozer blade.
Knowledge@Wharton: You alluded to the fact that with some changes in belief, in structure, in philosophy, companies and people could save massive amounts of money that really could affect the economy in a variety of different ways.
Humes: Absolutely. Just as increased traffic congestion is a cost, taking it