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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 away creates savings. We lost about $160 billion to the economy in 2015 just from traffic delays and congestion and the wasted fuel they cause. So yes, there’s a huge payoff. One idea is that you could have major employers, public and private sector, in a metropolitan area like Los Angeles, cooperate and stagger starting times for their workforce. It could be a voluntary program; there could be tax incentives to encourage it. But the effect would be to have commuters entering the driving space at different times rather than all at the peak rush hour times. If even 10% of the commuting population in a large city defers their commute by half an hour, it could reduce congestion almost magically.
Knowledge@Wharton: I would expect you to be a proponent of the work-from-home philosophy.
Humes: Enormously, because carpooling isn’t working. We’re seeing declining amounts of people carpooling over the years. So that would be an alternative. The other thing that cities around the world like London have demonstrated successfully is congestion pricing. You could replace the gasoline tax — eliminate it, it’s a regressive tax — and replace it with congestion pricing. It’s a toll that goes up at rush hour and down at off-peak hours, just like we price electricity. That, too, has been highly successful, because it eliminates that 50% of rush hour drivers who don’t really need to be there.
Knowledge@Wharton: How might data improve this in the years to come?
Humes: On a personal level it’s already improving. There are traffic apps, crowd-sourcing ones like Waze that amass data in real time and allow you to change the way you go places and avoid traffic. That’s been highly effective.
And of course, companies with large fleets are using their own proprietary systems — FedEx and UPS — to do the same thing. So data on the personal level has been having a big impact. Free apps, for goodness sakes: Who would have thought that such a thing could make driving more efficient for us? But it certainly has.
Knowledge@Wharton: I think that the passage of time will change this as well. As more baby boomers head into retirement … they will be replaced on the roads by millennials, who will adopt Waze and other similar apps, which make reducing congestion a little bit easier.
“We lead the world in our ability to move goods by rail but we are woefully behind in our ability to move people on rail.”
Humes: Oh, yes. And, of course, the rise of the smartphone has also empowered ride-sharing, which is a huge disruptor. And when you combine that with the evolving technology of driverless vehicles, that’s a new paradigm for how we use and deploy cars — and whether or not we even want to own them in the future. We may just buy car time like we buy phone minutes, once driverless technology is mature.
Knowledge@Wharton: What about the rail industry and its impact in this whole process?
Humes: The U.S. is schizophrenic on rail. We lead the world in our ability to move goods by rail but we are woefully behind in our ability to move people on rail. We’ve invested massively in the one and taken away investment in the other.
If you want to look at an effective rail system, America’s freight rail is pretty much the one you want to seek out and copy. And if you want to look at poor choices on our passenger traffic, then you could also look at how we’ve allowed our rail capacity to decay, particularly in the Northeast Corridor.
There’s infrastructure in that corridor that dates back practically to the Civil War, tunnels that are 100 years old. And it’s just one of many areas where we have lost the ability to maintain what we have. There’s a $3.6 trillion backlog in repairs to our transportation infrastructure. It’s enormous.
Knowledge@Wharton: Who has the best opportunity to make the changes necessary? Washington is one avenue, but whether they can be effective is about a 50/50 proposition. I’d expect there are a lot of great minds out there who are coming up with ideas.
Humes: But we can’t be governed by old thinking. A lot of the investments that we’re making — and they’re incredibly expensive ones like adding lanes to freeways like the 405 — really aren’t achieving what we want to achieve, which is to make traffic move better and more efficiently. We need to rethink what we’re investing in. And it’s not all about the ribbon-cutting moments. Some of the things are much simpler and yet could have a much higher payoff.
Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the developments you expect to see?
Humes: Well, they’re across the board. We’re continually seeing larger container ships bringing goods to our ports. In one sense, that’s welcome, because that’s bigger efficiency, it creates jobs. I spend a lot of the time at the port watching these amazing vessels come in. They’re a manmade wonder.
But on the other hand when you have ships arriving that carry enough goods to stock 10 Walmart superstores all at once coming off on trucks, where are those trucks going to go? There’s no room on the roads for them. It’s like a tidal wave every time one of these big ships hits the shore, and creates huge concerns for smog, for traffic. If we’re going to have this outsourced-goods economy continue, we need to create the right infrastructure to handle it.
Knowledge@Wharton: Many of these companies are making changes … yet there are still a lot of companies that probably are saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Not understanding that it is broken and it needs to be fixed.
Humes: There’s something like 60,000 bridges — just to name one category — that need repair around the country. One of them went out on a major freeway out here in California, the Interstate 10, a major goods corridor freeway — a little tiny bridge that washed out in a storm. If it had been maintained properly it wouldn’t have washed out. Every day that was closed, it cost the trucking and goods-moving industry $2.5 million. That’s just one bridge out of 60,000, so you can see what allowing our infrastructure to decay can do to the economy. It is a massive risk that just grows.
Anywhere you look you’re going to find it — in every state, in every city. It’s a struggle. In the last century we’ve had two big infrastructure investments in this country. There was the Franklin Roosevelt era, when all the great public works that we still rely on — the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge and so forth — were erected. All parts of the transportation infrastructure. And then there was the Interstate highway construction under the Eisenhower administration.
If you take away those two big building booms and investments by the government, huge investments, the U.S. has invested much less in terms of its gross domestic product in transportation than almost any other developed nation in the world. And we’re not keeping up.
Knowledge@Wharton: When you think about the push for driverless cars … companies, like Apple and Google, that are trying to bring this technology forward, are really at the edge of a major tipping point. Yet in some respects, they still battle old conventional wisdom from the 1950s and 1960s.
Humes: And that’s the problem. Whenever you try to integrate something new and disruptive in an old system — I mean, the car that we drive today is a fancied-up version of what was invented 100 years ago — trying to integrate those new ideas is really the difficult part. Once you get a majority of, let’s say, driverless vehicles on the road, then things get easy. But it’s that early mix that is proving problematic.
“Are we willing to take our hands off the steering wheel? Because we all think we’re better drivers than we really are.”
Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think would be the right mix of what needs to happen for our highways and our delivery system?
Humes: There are three things that could happen in the next 20 years that would be optimal. I’ve spent time driving around in the Google car, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m convinced that that technology, once it’s mature, would save tens of thousands of lives every year and create enormous efficiencies.
The idea of car ownership and human drivers in those cars is something that’s going to go away. It’s going to be like the horse. Driving is going to be recreation, it’s not going to be what we depend upon. It’s going to happen in the goods-movement sector first, because the trucking companies are champing at the bit. But we have to prepare for the negative impact of that, which is a decline in an important source of employment. We can’t forsake the people who are at the heart of our goods movement industry now whose jobs would be at risk from driverless technology. So that’s one challenge.
The next one is to use that technology not just to have a million cars on the roads shuttling people around, but to solve the problem of getting people to take the train and other big pieces of mass transit, because it can solve that first mile, last mile problem. Solve the inconvenience of getting to the train station. The driverless car comes and drops you off. It’s all part of the same app that you would tap to get a trip to get you where you want to go.
So the technology and the change that it could bring could solve most of the negative sides of our transportation system, but it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take a change in mindset, which is the third thing. Are we willing to take our hands off the steering wheel? Because we all think we’re better drivers than we really are.
But I looked at a day in America’s roads when I was writing Door to Door, looked at every fatal accident in the country. They are virtually all caused by bad decisions by human beings who are distracted or drinking or speeding. Those are the three things that kill us. It’s not defects in cars. It’s not bad road design. It’s that humans really aren’t capable of doing what we’re asking ourselves to do in cars. And it’s time for that to change.
Knowledge@Wharton: So we’re giving them too many options while they’re in the car?
Humes: We’re just not good drivers. It’s hard for us. We’re good drivers in spurts, but we all think we can multitask, and it turns out, you talk to the people at the National Safety Council, they explain very vigorously that human brains can do one thing well at one time. Multitasking is just another term for distraction.
Knowledge@Wharton: I guess the point to tackle then, is since we’ve seen so many more people move into cities, where the Ubers and the Lyfts of the world are able to take care of them, is to be able to maximize that out in the suburbs.
Humes: Yes, although the ride-sharing industry has caught on in smaller towns. It’s not just big cities. And the potential for driverless vehicles isn’t limited to the urban areas. But yes, those are the places where traffic and a lot of the negative issues associated with it are most intense. So I suppose it’s likely that’s where we’re going to see the technology deployed first.