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Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation

April 11, 2016

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Edward Humes takes us along on a "deep exploration of the hidden world of ports, traffic control centers, and the research labs defining our transportation future."

There was a rather silly debate here in Milwaukee recently. The debate was whether the I-94 east-west freeway should be expanded by simply adding another lane in both directions between 16th and 70th streets, or if the state should spend an estimated $1.5 billion to add an upper deck to the freeway.

(Somehow not on the table? Expanding other transportation options and leaving the freeway as is.)

The debate was silly because, no matter what they do to expand the freeway—and thankfully, the double-deck option has been rejected—it will only lead to more congestion.

Edward Humes opens his brilliant new book on transportation, Door to Door, discussing why this is so by looking at what happened when they added a lane to the 405 freeway in Los Angeles:

One year after the additional lane on the 405 opened, commuters on the that ten mile stretch of freeway spent an average of one minute longer stuck in traffic than they did before the new lane was added. Call it the Field of Dream syndrome: if you build it, the cars will come. Traffic, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the lure of the extra lane brought in more cars than ever. The 405 remains the commuter's bane, worse than ever—more than a billion spent, with nothing to show for it.

 

Actually, he doesn't open the book with that. He first tells us what happened when they shut that ten-mile, ten-lane stretch down for an entire weekend to begin the work of adding another lane. It was a major news event in Los Angeles, dubbed Carmaggedon. Everyone believed the diverted traffic city would turn the rest of the city into a parking lot: "Paralyzing jams, angry and reckless drivers, more accidents, smog, and deaths were predicted as the city and region prepared for the worst." Hospitals, city traffic control, and shipping companies all added staff.

[T]hey all predicted the event would be the worst man-made disaster in L.A. history. Carmageddon would earn its name.

 

Except it didn't. Not one dire prediction came true.

 

Congestion decreased that weekend citywide. The were no major traffic jams. No spikes in crashes or deaths. No escalating road rage or extra ER patients.

 

Magicians in a bunker didn't do this. Car-centric Angelenos did. They 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. The day-after buzz focused not on traffic jams and frustrated travel plans but on how the city might find a way to make the Carmaggedon effect permanent. "Carmaheaven" headlines renamed it.

 

But Door to Door isn't simply about busy roads, gridlocked freeways, and our daily commute. It's about our cup of coffee in the morning, the smartphones in our pockets, and everything else we take for granted in daily life, and the many miles they travel to reach our door. It's about our habits and our modern habitat, our impulsion to consume and the infrastructure that supports it. There has been a great run of books that focus on one aspect of this modern reality—The Sushi EconomyThe Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global EconomyNinety Percent of Everything to name just a few—but Humes' take on it is where the rubber really meets the road.

What does it take to keep America moving—to keep our cars and trucks on the road, our store shelves stocked, our cupboards and sock drawers, gas tanks and coffee pots full? Like an iceberg, impressive on the surface but with far more obscured below, the machinery of movement grinds away, a heady blend of miracles and madness that enables Americans to drive 344 million miles every hour and move $55 billion worth of good every day (which, by way of comparison, is triple the daily income of every household in America combined). As big as Carmageddon was, it's just a sliver compared to the global movement machine that supports the way we live, work, and prosper—and that we no longer can live without, even for a handful of days. Look anywhere in the modern American home and you will see necessities, ordinary items—things we use every day—whose journeys to us make Marco Polo's voyage pale by comparison.

 

To understand all of this is also to understand the global supply chain, which is, of course, crucial in today's business environment. No less a mind than Steve Jobs' understood its importance when he chose Tim Cook as his successor:

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.

 

You'll be hearing more from us on this book. We'll give it a fuller review in the next few weeks, and Edward has a ChangeThis manifesto coming this Wednesday in which he tells us that, in addition to the 405 project only adding to commute times, that the "The same is true of the $2.8 billion Katy Freeway project in Houston, which added a whopping sixteen lanes to Interstate 10—only to turn a 47-minute commute into a 70-minute crawl," and offers some ideas to fix traffic congestion.

Keep an eye on In the Books for those pieces to arrive. And if you'd like to follow along with our coverage with your own copy of the book, we have 20 copies available.

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