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Book Review: "Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation" by Edward Humes

The systems that bring materials and goods from their far-flung sources to end-consumers' doorsteps, as this Pulitzer-winning author shows, are astonishing. The infrastructure supporting them is "breaking the world."

By Bill Millard
February 16, 2017


Edward Humes tells two intertwining stories in Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation (Harper Collins, 2016), in highly contrasting tones. Each is appealing in its way; each suits its topic. The dissonance between the two speaks volumes about which parts of contemporary transportation systems work exceptionally well – in ways nearly everyone takes for granted, but only insiders and aficionados usually appreciate – and which part works so poorly that it's become a clear and present danger to human and even planetary life. (That happens to be the one that dominates the nation.)

 

Revealing the quotidian miracles of commercial logistics, a highly refined system that supports the comforts and conveniences of mainstream life in developed nations, Humes presents vast amounts of specific, useful information, drawing the reader's attention to these arcana with respect, even awe. Awe, one comes to recognize, is not too strong a response when discovering how rigorously, energetically, and efficiently contemporary commerce operates, thanks in large part to global shipping and other forms of transportation infrastructure. The iPhone in your pocket, for example, contains components that have collectively traveled far enough to accumulate “a transportation footprint at least as great as a 240,000-mile trip to the moon, and most or all of the way back.”

 

Such improbable facts abound in this 2016 work by Humes, author of 14 books (most recently Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, 2012), and winner of a Pulitzer Prize. He excels at digging deep where few of us would think to dig at all. He recognizes that infrastructure is “a word... that writers try to avoid because of its power to make eyes glaze over.” Yet his observations and inferences make it fascinating to both hardcore infrastructure wonks and glassy-eyed lay readers. He does the laborious work of teasing out the connections within extraordinarily complicated (if not always fully rational) systems. His own patience, and the reader's, are repaid many times over as the implications of those connections for the evolution of transportation, and thus of the built forms of modernity, become clear.

 

Yes, we can can

 

We learn in his second chapter how an annual 20 million tons of bauxite ore from a mine in Western Australia, the world's largest, become the metallic aluminum of our beer and soda cans, and we learn about these processes in detail that is sometimes literally granular (heated aluminum oxide is crystalline and “looks like granulated sugar but is hard enough to scratch glass”). We also learn that its smelting is a massive power consumer, accounting for about 5% of electricity generated nationwide, so that snarky engineers call aluminum “congealed electricity”; that America's poorly incentivized recycling rates mean that manufacturers reach the desired proportion of 70% recycled content by importing European cans, so that “the metal in my can of lime seltzer – and every other canned beverage in America – is far better traveled than most of the consumers who buy it”; and that the industry, despite its many impressive efficiencies in production and distribution, still wastes staggering amounts of the materials it schleps around the world, particularly the heaviest ingredient in these drinks: water.

 

This wasn't always the case. Old-fashioned methods of carbonating water, as used for decades in households and soda fountains with concentrated syrup and reusable siphons, were far more efficient ways to distribute and concoct our Coca-Cola, seltzer, club soda, and other fizzy beverages. That efficiency was both physical and economic. If it weren't for a development that large populations have found handy, buzzword-slinging MBAs would hail as “disruptive,” and stockholders discovered was more profitable – the proliferation of single-serve, ready-to-drink bottles and cans – the enormous waste of disposable containers, not to mention the discarded “quarter-full cans of flat soda or beer... spilled down the drain,” could have been spared. “From an efficiency, shipping, and waste point of view,” Humes comments, “this shift made no sense. Consumers were paying more to get less. But it was marketed as an innovation, as progress, as convenience.... The history of the can reveals this to have been a choice, not an inevitability – one that has been profitable for a few enterprises, but costly for consumers as well as for the planet.”

 

In field after field, Humes illustrates, the paradigm of the single-serve can recurs: a path-dependent process develops around one or another easily mass-produced container (he identifies the private car as “a great big can,” the standardized cargo container another), and the technical refinements in the production and use of such containers are ingenious. Billions of consumers grow accustomed to the door-to-door, ostensibly seamless convenience each container allows. Yet the underlying rationality of that choice and the economic advantages some parties gain from it are drastically different things. There are two types of rationality operating here, at odds with each other: the instrumental rationality of a process that builds on certain foundational assumptions or given technologies, and the ultimate rationality of those assumptions or locked-in technologies themselves from a broader point of view. The former is invariably high, the latter low, sometimes negative.

 

One is reminded of a line attributed to management analyst Peter Drucker: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” A similar idea appears more succinctly in biologist Robert Pollack's Signs of Life (1994), in the context of the ethical aspects of certain types of genetic research: “If it isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well.” Humes makes a powerful case that today's global networks are doing many things well, including some we'd be wise to stop doing altogether.

 

Where he finds it worthwhile to accentuate the positive, as in an analysis of the industry supplying the world's favorite stimulant by “unabashed coffee nerd” Jay Isais of California-based Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, his and his sources' observations are not only intriguing but practical on a personal level. Listen to Isais explain how Coffea arabica and C. robusta beans are handled by myriad middlemen between the tropical regions where these plants grow and the rest of the caffeinated world, and you'll come to understand why coffee “can never be made any better, but there are a thousand ways to make it worse along the way” – with the corollary that you might emulate Isais, if you don't already, in avoiding mass-produced, homogenized blends in favor of ultra-fresh beans.

 

“It's impossible. It's difficult. It's done.”

 

This blend of individual stories and deep-dive data provides some of the most memorable sections of Door to Door. Humes introduces the reader to the Ladies of Logistics (LOLs), “an unofficial group of transportation movers and shakers [who] buck the tide in a boys'-club industry,” directing various forms of traffic at major seaports. Since global shipping now places control over nearly every product on Earth in the hands of 20 companies, mostly linked in vast ship-sharing alliances and all dependent on an orderly flow through the pinch points of a few ports, the experts who operate these places are the unsung heroes of the economy. Former Los Angeles Port Director Geraldine Knatz (now a policy and engineering professor at USC) is one of the most colorful and knowledgeable LOLs, along with colleagues like Elizabeth Warren of the business association FuturePorts (not the U.S. Senator), and Fran Inman of industrial warehousing firm Majestic Realty. Another LOL is information specialist Debbie Chavez of the LA-Long Beach Port complex's Marine Exchange, which creates a daily Master Queuing List, “the essential first step that sets off a well-choreographed transportation chain reaction” determining the flow of containerized goods from ships to cranes to drayage trucks, warehouses, long-haul trucks, and freight rail. Knatz brought biological and environmental expertise to a congested port complex that “was under siege as the worst air polluter in California”; her team's reforms like the Alameda Corridor project, a dedicated freight-rail expressway bypassing street/rail conflict points, overcame logjams of railroad-monopoly incentives, litigation, protests, and general civic paralysis to “simultaneously grow the port with massive new infrastructure while radically cutting pollution.” She describes the process pithily: “It's impossible. It's difficult. It's done.”

 

Most people enjoying consumer conveniences are largely oblivious to how the products arrive, but if Door to Door increases their appreciation of how pivotal transportation is to their way of life, and how vital it is to strike a sustainable balance between smooth operations and blowback externalities, it'll have performed a substantial public service. Perhaps it can even make a dent in the NIMBYism and blinkered vision that cause some consumers to utter howlers like one that Humes reports from a public hearing on expansion of the LA-Long Beach port: “Why do I need a port? I have Walmart.” Obviously, the port, the main conduit for Pacific Rim-manufactured goods, makes Walmart possible.

 

It should be equally obvious that “green ports” initiatives by Knatz and colleagues to modernize energy performance and wean large ships off of cheap, filthy fuel, often burned close to land deserve support and enforcement. “If the shipping industry were a country,” Humes notes, “it would be in the top 10 drivers of climate change, and its billion tons of carbon dioxide and equivalents put it ahead of Germany, the world's fourth largest economy.” Yet shipping on international waters exists in legal limbo, with ships' emissions omitted from nations' greenhouse-gas calculations, in an “accounting trick” that fudges the carbon footprints of the two heaviest-emitting nations, the U.S. and China. Trucking interests have also obstructed Knatz's greening efforts, but she and the other LOLs have persevered in forging local and national transportation policies that realize win/win systemic gains measured in regional air-quality and health metrics, fuel-cost savings for the shipping lines, maintenance reductions, and economic growth.

 

The obvious, invisible death star

 

Humes tells a different story when he singles out the technology that won, at least for most of the past century, the American transportation-mode wars. He is only one of many observers to identify dependence on internal-combustion vehicles as a source of inefficiencies, absurdities, archaisms, and avoidable hazards. But the chapters on this component of the system evoke his liveliest mixture of eye-popping number-crunching and pungent rhetoric. Americans, he points out, have household carbon footprints five times the global average, largely because of this monomodal addiction. That's also why our economy generates massive wastes of energy, fuel, money, real estate (particularly the vast spaces dedicated to parking), and opportunity in economists' sense of the term, since “the average car sits idle 92% of the time,” and why walking and cycling through much of our sidewalk-deprived road system are only for the courageous, with fatal car crashes so common that they go unreported. “One out of every 112 Americans is likely to die in a traffic crash,” Humes notes: “Just under 1% of us ... if our roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered.” Deaths by car in each single year (35,400 in 2014, the last year measured here) outnumber the death tolls from “each war America has ever fought except the Civil War and the two world wars.” When injuries requiring trauma care or medical consultation are included, the annual figures out-slaughter “every war and conflict in which America has ever participated, Confederate casualties included.”

 

Still, in the U.S. built environment, culture, and consciousness, “the car is the star,” as the Door to Door chapter prominently excerpted in The Atlantic (April 2016) emphasizes. Americans associate cars with personal freedom on powerful levels, conscious and subconscious, reinforced by habit, available options, and relentless propaganda, regardless of the many forms of personal and social freedom these vehicles take away. Deaths, of course, are the ultimate and irreversible form of that loss of freedom. Humes devotes another full chapter, “Friday the Thirteenth,” to accounts of representative automotive fatalities nationwide on that single date in 2015, with a related appendix listing deaths according to media and police reports, plus explications of the varieties of hazards involved: “backover” killings of children in cars' blind zones; forms of human carelessness exacerbated by poor design of roads and vehicles; routine lack of legal accountability for vehicular homicide; cell-phone distraction abetted by “the myth of multitasking”; the historical shift to legal and bureaucratic “reframing of the relative rights of drivers and pedestrians” under auto-interest pressure beginning in the 1920s; the parallel rises in heavy SUVs' popularity and collision severity beginning in the 1990s; the persistence of drunk-driving deaths despite the availability of alcohol-measuring lockout devices; the construction of sprawl-space “stroads” (a useful coinage by dissident Minnesota traffic engineer Charles Marohn), a deadly hybrid that is neither a complex low-speed multimodal street nor a simple high-speed monomodal road, designed to serve two incompatible purposes, and extraordinarily conducive to car-pedestrian conflict; and perhaps deadliest of all, the persistence of the fallacy that avoidable collisions are “accidents.”

 

Unless the entire culture rethinks its assumptions about the primacy of cars over other modes, the tradeoff that boils down to premature and preventable deaths for convenience will continue, along with all the other environmental and social downsides of Motorism. Even if the nation's once-mighty intercity and regional rail system were eventually somehow restored (requiring, for the time being, the unlikeliest of political miracles) – reducing the primacy of a trucking industry that has pushed American infrastructure to the breaking point but remains the only solution to the notorious last-mile problem for freight – cars remain the only last-mile option for passengers outside the few cities that conserve other modes. Aware that a nationwide inability to assess the many costs of dependence on King Car does not zero out those costs, and that the “peak car” condition is the opposite of sustainable, Humes in later chapters explores various alternatives that might combine to give at least parts of the U.S. a less auto-dependent, if not fully post-automotive, future.

 

The end of the car as we know it (feeling fine yet?)

 

He expands on Seattle-based traffic engineer Ted Trepanier's recognition that technological alternatives may overturn the 20th-century assumption of universal car ownership. Trepanier moved from a state transportation position to the data firm Inrix, “a major player in crowdsourced, cloud-stored traffic mapping” providing real-time data on congestion, construction, parking, and other variables that affect driving behavior. Such apps are one of five trends Humes identifies that might add up to a transportation revolution, along with China's transition to a nonsweatshop economy, the reshoring of manufacturing jobs to the U.S., the spread of 3D “factory-in-a-box” printing, and possibly the most important, the expansion of driverless cars from a novelty to a norm. Automakers are piloting them in various forms, introducing autonomy by degrees, from options like cruise control and parking assistance all the way up to “completely autonomous cars that don't even have steering wheels or gas pedals,” just power switches and destination-input interfaces. Robot drivers guided by light detection and ranging (lidar), a process “like insanely fast photography... a kind of three-dimensional machine vision,” are practically certain to outperform fallible humans in safety, congestion avoidance, and resource-use efficiency. The combination of ridesharing and robotics, Humes says, “would end car ownership as we know it.”

 

Identifying the opponents of a disruption that would move American culture past peak car, as irreversibly as the car moved us past “peak horse” in the 1920s, does not exactly tax the imagination. Observers of the fledgling robocar have already noted the disproportionate attention attracted by this technology's inevitable glitches: tens of thousands of dead bodies on the Interstates and stroads may be invisible to the media and normalized by the police, but the first death of a test driver in an autopiloted Tesla Model S last year was howling-headline material. Humes cautiously predicts that Americans, reluctant to trust machines over people regardless of the comparative safety stats, will adopt robocars only in hesitant fits and starts, with human driving never fully phased out. Perhaps, eventually, driving will remain as a leisure option, as horseback riding – once nearly everyone's transport mode, back when “oats were big business, the horse era's equivalent of gasoline today (except the oats were a form of renewable energy)” – became a pastime for the exurban and the wealthy. Much depends, he realizes, on whether planners and industries follow the counsel of University of Minnesota transportation scholar David Levinson to move toward more achievable short-term changes with clear returns on investment, perhaps through market-driven mechanisms that assign credible prices to driving behaviors that currently enjoy huge hidden subsidies. Tolls, congestion pricing, transit expansion (particularly humble but efficient buses), and other nonrevolutionary measures, Levinson and Humes suggest, are familiar, reliable meliorist measures that don't require faith in disruptive tech that could be as revolutionary as cars, computers, and smartphones have been – or as illusory as the promise that we would inhabit a Hugo Gernsback future of jetpacks and monorails.

 

The reasonableness of Humes's recommendations is both a virtue and a liability. The chief objection might be termed Burnhamist: making small plans stirs few souls. The downsides of the transportation system's automotive component, whether it is measured according to climate change, vehicular bloodshed, resource waste, or any other metrics, are so severe that sober incrementalism seems inadequate. “The door-to-door system created the modern consumer economy. Now it's breaking the world,” Humes summarizes – yet for the “long-overdue upgrade of a filthy, creaking, overloaded, inefficient century-old model that has worked miracles but is now past its prime – so expensive that it's left us trillions of dollars behind in maintenance and repairs,” a bit more soul-stirring may be in order. His modest recommendations for what individuals can do on local scales, as many Americans are already doing (biking, ridesharing, nonpeak driving, consuming less and more locally, recycling, walking), are clearly necessary but hardly sufficient, considering the scale of the problems and the entrenchment of the opposition. As much as any green urbanist will cheer Humes for aggregating so much vital information and presenting it so persuasively – and yes, Door to Door rightfully earns a place not just on countless academic syllabi but on the bookshelf of every citizen who looks seriously at questions of transportation – its prescriptive component is likely to attract the response we've all heard voiced by Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is?”

 

Where a diagnosis is devastating yet a prescription seems underscaled, drastic historical events can sometimes provide enough heat to fuse them. Humes, fortunately, offers a powerful illustrative case. The “Carmageddon” that traffic experts predicted for metropolitan L.A. in July 2011 when construction required closure of Interstate 405 didn't occur: instead, he observes, Angelenos proved they weren't as car-bound as their reputation holds, taking alternative modes enough that congestion decreased, smog dropped by 90% from its normal level in the 405 corridor and 25% citywide, headlines were adjusted from Carmageddon to “Carmaheaven,” and “every traffic truism held dear for the past 60 years [was] turned on its head.... America's love affair with the car was openly questioned.” This anecdote opens Humes's book and recurs later as the incident that catalyzed Trepanier's perception of a budding transportation-information revolution. Perhaps it was a one-off perfect non-storm, unrepresentative and unrepeatable. Or perhaps it was an early proof-of-concept event indicating that at this historic crossroads, even the unlikeliest of populations – car-crazed Southern California! – can respond to conditions as presented to them, and rise to the occasion with a spontaneous outbreak of common sense, demonstrating and acting on a clear view of what they do and don't need.

 

 

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, Architect, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, LEAF Review, Architectural Record, Architectural Lighting, Contexts, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, and other publications. In between periodical work, after assistance from a research grant from the Graham Foundation, he is slowly writing a book, The Vertical and Horizontal Americas: The Built Environment, Cultural Formations, and the Post-Automotive Era.

 

Also by Bill Millard:

 

Book Review: "The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities Are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning" by Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy
In a tightly packed yet readable marvel of comprehensiveness, Australian transportation scholars crunch the numbers on density and mode choices and come up with surprising grounds for optimism - provided planners get certain critical decisions right.

 

Book Review: Cities for People, by Jan Gehl
Copenhagen's urban-space guru explains the principles, practices, and priorities that make cities more livable - beginning, but not ending, with dethroning King Car.



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