With ‘Door to Door,’ Humes’ look at transportation in U.S. is a fast read, but worth taking it slow

Edward Humes and the Google carI rarely read books before everyone else and I’m even less likely to finish a book quickly. However, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes’ Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, he had my attention and was I strapped in for a fast ride.

The book is a wonderful read and inspiring to me as a writer and transportation planner. Humes covers many forms of transportation — from walking and biking to rail freight and cargo ships and even self-driving cars — and he touches on how fragile our entire transportation system is, especially thanks to our addiction to the solo-driven automobile.

I could spend hours talking about the virtues of the book (read more in this New York Times article), but I’ll share some of the highlights and a few of my thoughts (more tweets at #DoorToDoor).

More than smartphones, more than television, more than food, culture or commerce, more even than Twitter or Facebook, transportation permeates our daily existence. In ways both glaringly obvious and deeply hidden, thousands, even millions of miles are embedded in everything we do and touch — not just every trip we take but every click we make, every purchase, every meal, every sip of water and drop of gasoline. We are the door-to-door nation.

That addiction is an expensive one to maintain:

We are the proud owners of roads we can no longer afford to maintain, saddling the country with an impossible $3.6 trillion backlog in repairs and improvements to aging roads and bridges — a deficit that grows every year because Congress has refused to raise the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal fuel tax. It’s been frozen in place since 1993 without even adjustments for inflation (which means that 18.4 cents is now worth only 11.2 cents).

Cars pose the biggest threat on the climate front, with all the costs that global warming and imposes on our infrastructure, homes, and lives through increasingly severe storms drought, rising sea levels, and pressure on food supplies. If the price of gasoline in the vehicles that burn it actually reflected the true costs and damage they inflict, the common car would be as extinct as the dinosaurs. Gasoline would cost way more than $10 a gallon. That’s how big our secret subsidy is.

“Mass transit isn’t the most subsidized mobility option, as most Americans believe. Your car is.” That is a sobering smack to the face of those who would refuse mass transit and biking- and walking-friendly infrastructure. Our car culture costs us so much more.

We spend billions on new lanes and high-tech traffic control centers just in the hope of saving a few minutes off our travels — billions for mere minutes — because movement impeded, even for a meager interval we’d happily invest in awaiting a restaurant table or a beer at the ballgame, is psychologically unbearable if it takes place in a car. Researchers have documented this phenomenon time and time again: the brain perceives each minute of travel delay — waiting for a bus, looking for parking, being stuck in traffic — as two to three times longer than a minute spit moving freely. Humans are conditioned perhaps even hardwired this way.

Humes offers remedies to our addition to the automobile. As a former print journalist, I was struck by this tidbit:

Unlike cars, smartphones are also prodigious transportation reducers. They have accelerated the substitution of digital newspapers for physical newsprint, which otherwise would have to be transported by rail and semitruck to the presses, then physically delivered to homes and points of purchase after printing. The energy and carbon footprint of a single copy of newspaper is roughly the same as driving a car one kilometer — not much on its own, but it adds up pretty quickly over time and across whole subscriber bases.

He sprinkles hundreds of illustrative and well-researched statistics into the book:

  • There are 34,000 traffic fatalities each year in the United States
  • Americans drive 344 million miles every hour
  • Four Americans die every hour and one is injured every 12.6 seconds

One car death every 15 minutes, and one crash every 3 seconds, became little more than white noise to us. We couldn’t get in our cars every day otherwise. And we certainly couldn’t cruise down 65-mile-per-hour freeways with her babies strapped into car seats that offer a little protection above 35 miles per hour. Habit conquers all.

One of the best ways to discourage individual driving habits (and pay for roads and infrastructure) could be to raise the gas tax:

More than nine out of 10 American voters believe it’s important to improve the country’s transportation infrastructure, and eight out of 10 say it’s vital in order for America to stay competitive with other nations. Yet seven out of 10 voters adamantly oppose raising the federal gas at 1993 levels (18.4 cents). Which is why Congress is basically cooking the books with accounting gimmicks to keep the system afloat year to year, deferring critical repairs and modernization projects year after year.

This beautiful country is becoming an asphalt wasteland. The environmental impact of all that pavement is bad enough, but the cost of building and maintaining that network of roads and parking lots is even worse.

Yikes! Delaware (2,491 miles) plus Rhode Island (1,212 miles) equals more than 3,700 square miles of pavement covering our country — and that’s just counting parking spaces, not all the driveways, street, roads, and highways. I’m not sure I’m ready for self-driving cars, but Humes’ experiences with the Google cars and their expected efficiency and life-saving potential may make me a believer after all.

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