Door to Door

Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
© 2016 Edward Humes
384 pages

Are you interested in the Port of Los Angeles? Do you hate cars and find hushed reports of every auto death in a single day great reading?  Do you long for the day when you can sit in your Google or Uber shuttle doing your sodoku while it toodles down the road?  Well, here’s your book — Door to Door, a book which describes itself as being about transportation but which is mostly about the aforementioned port, with a few other essays grafted on, vaguely united in their common theme of complaining about cars and aging infrastructure.  What is here is enjoyable to read,  at least for people like myself who find  transportation fascinating, but it’s not a good book; the organization and few topics chosen make it seem more like a collection of essays written by someone chiefly interested in Los Angeles.  I’ve read Humes before, in his Garbology, and according to my notes it was likewise a grab-bag of topics.

In the age of globalization, logistics is a growth industry. Even if robots take the jobs of cabbies and long-haul truck drivers,  the demand for consumer goods is such that more ships and trucks will be required to carry them.  At the Port of Los Angeles, which handles a third of all goods consumed in the United States (from bananas to smartphones),  the managers there are finding themselves in the position of the New York harbormasters in the late fifties:  the ships arriving are too large to handle easily.  When containerization first arrived,  they required infrastructure at so  different a scale than the old break-bulk shpping that it was  easier for cities like New York  and  London to build new docks altogether. But now the container ships have outgrown the commercial docks built especially for them.

The roads, too, are problematic, overburdened by the fact that  everyone drives everywhere; even highways built to link ports and industrial sections are now co-opted for ordinary through traffic, and the sheer number of cars makes it difficult for transit options like buses to take off. Why would people ride the bus when cars so so much faster? Some cities are exploring ways to create better transit efficiency, like creating bus-only lanes; logistics chiefs like a UPS director interviewed here believe a similar approach for freight traffic  would help the gridlock.  Humes deplores the relative spending of China, Europe, and the United States on transportation:  the US simply isn’t keeping up, he says, with a gas tax stuck in the nineties and zero mass infrastructure ideas in the works.  If we are stuck with car-centered infrastructure, says Hume, the best alternative may to work to replace the consumer fleets with self-driving cars — but cars that don’t allow humans to take over, because the cars will eventually be better drivers than humans ever can be. And if you doubt that humans are crappy drivers, he has an entire chapter called “Friday the 13th” that tells the story of seemingly every single person killed in the US by automobiles that day.  (Auto deaths by year are usually around 40,000 in the US, averaging out  to 110 people a day.  Guns got nothin’ on the automobile.)

A book called Door to Door: The World of Transportation should cover much more than it did.  The two paragraphs above give it far more organization than it had itself, because it was mostly about the port — with odd chapters like the logistics of soda cans thrown in. There are better books written about infrastructure (Infrastructure: A Field Guide) better books written about transit  options (Straphanger), better books on shipping, ((90% Of Everything), and so on.  Again, this is enjoyable enough to read, it”s just not a good as a book on transportation.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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8 Responses to Door to Door

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    brother! i had no idea that many persons were slain by auto each day… if there was a bus here i'd use it. some sort of mass transportation has to be the best answer, and it may take some kind of coercion too get people to use it… like a super high tax on cars that would pay for fixing the infrastructure? interesting post…

  2. Marian H says:

    Thanks for the book recs! Traffic is one of my biggest pet peeves; it seems our roads can barely keep up with all the new development. Expanding public transport is in the works here, but I'm fairly skeptical it'll be as cost effective for suburbia as for the bigger cities like Seattle. I do find driving scarier than flying. I've been almost hit three times in the past year or so, and in one case I was just waiting at a stoplight. At least pilots train regularly!

  3. CyberKitten says:

    I checked back to see how many infrastructure related (even vaguely) books I had read in the past few years – I came up blank! Maybe I need to look at it a bit more with fresh eyes….. [muses]

  4. Stephen says:

    According to the polls cited here, 9/10 Americans believe we need more infrastructure spending, and 7/10 have zero interest in increased taxes to apply towards it. The author advocates both higher gas taxes and tolls, although his aim with the tolls is to ease crowding in city centers — something London does, I believe.

  5. Stephen says:

    Traffic is one of the reasons I avoid big cities — I love driving out in the country, but utterly loath it inside cities. Too many cars, too many distractions, too many occasions to miss a turn! When I was in ABQ, I was nearly hit twice in five minutes. Funny that you mention pilots — these days they do so little piloting that the airlines are having to mandate they train more or participate more in the flight process just to keep their skills and attention honed. Otherwise if the autopilot blinks, they can't step in and handle an emergency. That's what happened with the Uber car killing that person in Arizona…the “backup” human driver wasn't paying attention. That's why Humes here thinks autonomous cars with human backups are the WORST of all worlds. Better would be a human driver with AI aid, but best is autonomous alone.

  6. Stephen says:

    Haven't you read one of Christian Wolmar's books on trains? Not quite the same thing but very close…at least if he was talking about the problems of British rail before and after privatisation.

  7. Marian H says:

    That definitely makes sense… Trains have the same problem right now – they're autonomous enough to be dangerous but not to prevent a catastrophe.

  8. CyberKitten says:

    I bought 'Blood, Iron & Gold – How Railways transformed the World' last year but haven't scheduled it in yet. I think this is the only transport/infrastructure book I have to read ATM!

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