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