Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
April 21, 2016
Edward Humes takes us on a fascinating journey through the intricacies and implications of our modern transportation network.
Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation by Edward Humes, Harper, 384 pages, $27.99, Hardcover, April 2016, ISBN 9780062372079
Edward Humes’ new book, Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, begins with the story of Carmageddon, which is what the media referred to what was supposed to be the worst traffic event in Los Angeles history—shutting down a ten mile stretch of the 405 freeway in Los Angeles to begin construction of an additional lane—yet ended up decreasing congestion citywide that weekend. And it wasn’t city officials, transportation agencies, and commercial freight services sitting in control rooms saving the day. People simply changed their behavior:
Car-centric Angelenos … walked, biked, rode Metro Rail, took the bus, ride-shared with Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft, and found their formerly "essential" drives to be quite optional. Smog in the 405 corridor dropped to a tenth of normal and the entire city inhaled 25 percent less air pollutants—for an entire week as the event's halo effect persisted.
This was made possible, in part, with the help of a device that has changed the way we go about our daily lives, that allows us to check traffic in real time and easily find alternate routes and modes of transportation—our smartphones. And that is where the story widens, and you realize this is far more than a book just about traffic. Door to Door is about transportation as a whole, from our roads and railways to the nation's ports and our everyday products. It is in the manufacture of his iPhone, and the collective 160,000 miles the parts and pieces that make it up travel around the globe before they reach him, that the story of our modern life emerges. Because “At least two dozen primary suppliers on three continents and two islands (Japan and Taiwan) provide these parts,” it takes a full three pages to tell the story of their journeys criss-crossing the globe. It’s a thoroughness Humes will continue throughout the book, to fascinating result. And, as in most cases, the final product isn’t even where the story ends—or rather begins. In the case of his iPhone, he tells us:
The movement of these components does not include the mining, processing, or shipping of the rare earth elements that are so vital to so much of our twenty-first century technology, or the movement of the vast quantities of energy and water needed to obtain them.
In the end, the iPhone has a transportation footprint at least as great as a 240,000-mile trip to the moon, and most or all of the way back. The wonder of this is compounded by the fact that this transportation intensity is a strategy to increase efficiency and lower cost.
It is because of that apparent irony that the “real breakthrough that makes the iPhone possible”—indeed, as Humes tells us, makes most of today’s consumer goods possible—“is a breakthrough in transportation.” And the thing most responsible for that breakthrough is the shipping container. It was the container that made much of American manufacturing’s historical strategy and strength—assembling all the resources necessary and making products from start to finish in one place, close to the end customer—obsolete. People tend to blame politicians and trade deals for the offshoring of American jobs, but it may be the containerization of shipping that is the main culprit. That combined with the shift in electronics manufacturing from the mechanical age to a digital one caused a shift that made most American manufacturer’s “do-it-all in-house style a liability even as its technology became obsolete.” Continuing the story of the iPhone, and the company that created, completes the picture:
When Apple CEO Steve Jobs hired Tim Cook in 1998 to run the company's worldwide operation—and eventually succeed him as CEO—it was not because of Cook's computer genius, but for his transportation acumen, his skills as a supply chain savant. Soon after his arrival at the company’s Cupertino, California, headquarters, Cook proclaimed that Apple had to treat computers—then Apple’s main product—like milk, a commodity that transported and sold quickly before it soured. This approach, now widespread, was made possible by the effects of the container revolution. Cook’s goal was to have inventory cleared away in days instead of months, because idle inventory, like an idle cargo ship, is a costly drag on the bottom line. Such a strategy, Cook said, could never succeed with an Apple that owned its own factories. So he orchestrated their closure, along with most of the company’s warehouses. Apple switched to a “just-in-time” manufacturing strategy that could only be achieved through outsourcing components and finishing products days before they would be sold to Apple customers. The component suppliers, not Apple, would worry about inventory, but as they serves many customers, their inventory cleared out far more quickly, which meant their parts manufacturing costs were lower than Apple’s could ever be. In the era of containerization, the cost of sourcing across greater distances paled in comparison to the savings of manufacturing just in time. When Apple’s most important line of business shifted from a few million computers a year to tens of millions of iPods, then hundreds of millions of iPhones, this strategy paid off handsomely.
But it is not just the iPhone and electronics that have been affected by the changes in the supply chain. Another, seemingly more simple, product many of us start our days with, coffee, has been just as effected by the modern supply chain. In subsequent chapters, Humes tells us of the complex journey even simple products like coffee beans take to reach us, and how today's advanced supply chain is largely responsible for the incredible increase in the quality of coffee most of us drink today compared to a generation ago.
But while the containerization of shipping may have made just-in-time manufacturing more efficient and improved the quality of our morning cup of coffee, there is a downside. And that downside begins with its enormous carbon footprint. Cargo vessels alone are “on track to generate up to 14 percent of worldwide greenhouse gases by 2050,” and that is only one piece of the ecological and efficiency implications inherent in the modern supply chain:
Beyond their smokestacks, the megaships that now dominate cargo movements are threatening the transportation system itself, overloading ports and the network of rail, road, and trucking that connect them to the rest of the world. The U.S. is running out of capacity at these choke points, with neither the money nor the will to increase it. The rise of online shopping is exacerbating the goods-movement overload, because shipping one product at a time to homes requires many more trips than delivering the same amount of goods en masse to stores. In yet another door-to-door paradox, the phenomenon of next-day and same-day delivery, while personally efficient and seductively simple for consumers, is grossly inefficient for the transportation system at large.
While it may be efficient when broken down by companies on a product-by-product basis, it starts to add up viewed systemically. As he takes us on a journey throughout a single day of life throughout the book, he documents the journey imbedded in each of the products he touches, and tells the story of how they got to him. He begins with the story of iPhone above, and dives deep into that cup of coffee, but between his system of morning alarms from his phone and his first cup of joe, he carries an aluminum can that housed his nightly seltzer water from his bedside table down to the recycling bin, and that brings us to the story of aluminum, which may be the “new transportation ‘killer app.’” Because of the dichotomy between an extraction and manufacturing process that has remained largely unchanged since the 1880s, combined with a nearly perfect recyclability and the fact that no one company or country even could produce a single can of the seltzer on their own, the aluminum can is a good example of the best and worst of what’s embedded in modern transportation, of “our entire way of life, commerce, and movement.”
But the predominant symbol of our modern way of life is of, course, the automobile, and it is in Chapter 4 that Humes returns more literally to the road and the vehicles you’ll find there, where he tells us that:
[I]n almost every way imaginable, the car as it is deployed and used today is insane. And not in a good way. More like the deep-fried Twinkies stuffed with caviar I saw being sold for $125 apiece at the county fair this summer—insane that way. Except our cars are much more likely to kill us.
Beside being a terrible investment, in that it sits unused 92 percent of the time, while contributing about 43 percent of all transportation emissions, cars are also one of the leading causes of death and injury in America. Chapter 4 is entitled “Four Airliners a Week” because that is the number of airliners that would need to crash each week to equal the number of traffic fatalities. There is a death on American roads every fifteen minutes. It is for that reason and others—including the amount of space used for parking cars on prime real estate across America—that Humes sees a bright future for driverless cars. But that is not likely to be the norm for some time (though it could come sooner than you may think), and before he gets to that topic in detail, he moves onto the other pieces of the current network—specifically the bottleneck at our nation's ports, and the cargo vehicles that take those goods out of port and begin the highly complex commercial journey to their final destination.
The book ends with five trends that may be reversing the transportation tide. The first three—rising wages in China and the transformation of that country into a consumer economy, the possible re-shoring of manufacturing jobs to the U.S., and the rise of 3-D printing—could mean that products will once again be made closer to consumers here in America, which would lessen the transportation load. The rise of the ride-sharing economy could drastically lessen the number of private vehicles on the road (and, again, the space needed for parking in American downtowns), but it is the last trend, the driverless car, that holds the possibility for the most dramatic changes.
Door to Door is incredibly comprehensive: a book about the modern realities of transportation and the products being transported, a history of the commercial and consumer history that brought us to this point, and an exploration of the possible future of all of these things and more. In the end, he comes back to Los Angeles, its car culture and traffic, and the possible solutions to it. You can get a hint of some of those solutions in a The Door to Door Manifesto he wrote for our sister site, ChangeThis, but to get the full breadth and treatment of all the pieces that lead into and contribute to it, you’ll need a copy of Door to Door. It is a fascinating and entertaining journey of a book that should find readers across many genres, from business, technology, and current events, to public policy and popular culture.