Read Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation Online

Authors: Edward Humes

Tags: #Business & Economics, #Industries, #Transportation, #Automotive, #History

Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation

BOOK: Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


This book is dedicated to my favorite door in the

world—the one that leads to my family.




he traffic apocalypse arrived at last on a humid and smoggy Friday evening in Los Angeles in 2011.

, we called it. Even Metro LA, the relentlessly optimistic transportation agency charged with keeping this capital of car culture moving, finally gave in and adopted the end-of-days nickname for the traffic disaster it had planned and scheduled.

Carmageddon was invented to bring relief to the most traffic-jammed highway in America. Instead, it sparked an unexpected revolution.

Long dreaded by Los Angeles commuters, truckers, cops, and business owners, Carmageddon at least began according to plan. Shortly after rush hour's heavy traffic had dwindled into Friday dinner-hour light, a swarm of orange-vested highway crews assembled amid a chorus of slamming pickup truck doors. They wrestled blockades into place at the entry ramps onto Los Angeles's busiest freeway exactly as scheduled. Their battle plan had been designed by a military engineer who rebuilt bomb-cratered highways in Iraq before coming to Metro, and his timetable was
as mercilessly exacting as a Marine Corps march. By midnight, a ten-mile, ten-lane stretch of Interstate 405, which carries nearly 400,000 cars and trucks a day, had become a vehicle-free zone for the first time since the governor of California cut the ceremonial ribbon in 1962.

The next morning, hundreds of Angelenos gathered on overpasses up and down the freeway to gawk at what had been for generations a ceaseless, roaring river of cars, now transformed into a silent and empty ribbon of asphalt curling gracefully over the Sepulveda Pass, vanishing into the summertime haze. You could hear birds singing that morning where the singing of tires on asphalt had so long reigned.

The goal was simple: to fix one of America's worst commutes.

The project would graft a new lane onto the overburdened freeway to relieve chronic congestion and crashes, the result of jamming twice as many cars and trucks on the highway at peak hours as its designers envisioned. The closure was to let the bulldozers rule the road for an entire weekend while portions of three bridges spanning the freeway fell to the wrecking ball. It also meant a half million weekend drivers would just have to find another way. Which was, of course, why the event had been dubbed Carmageddon: those drivers had no other way to go. Or so it seemed.

The 405 has long been an object of dread in the region, at once essential, unavoidable, and reviled. In other parts of the city, parallel freeway routes give freight haulers and commuters multiple options as they traverse the LA sprawl. But the 405 is the only direct major route linking West Los Angeles, UCLA, and the coastal communities to the south with the San Fernando Valley and its suburban commuters to the north, as well as the resort towns of Ventura and Santa Barbara farther up the coast. Having only one way to get between major population, recreation, and
employment centers in a city with 6.5 million cars—and a historical disdain for both public transit and carpooling—has long been a recipe for epic gridlock.
The standing joke is that its numerical name stands for the “four or five miles per hour” speeds the 405 inflicts on drivers. Regular travelers on the 405 know, and meters and measurements have confirmed, that this is really no joke at all but the actual speed of traffic at peak hours and places on this less-than-“free” way. Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk branded his commute through 405 traffic “soul killing,” inspiring him to vow to reinvent the commute and to make public his
-style “hyperloop” concept: LA to San Francisco in one half-hour pneumatic whoosh.

The entire expansion would take five years and $1.3 billion to complete before the promised traffic relief arrived, with the diciest part being those initial fifty-three hours when the freeway would be emptied completely. To get the gain, the city fathers warned, there had to be pain: the shutdown was universally predicted to turn the rest of LA into one big parking lot. All those cars, all those big rigs, all those people and goods normally occupying the 405, would flood other routes ill-equipped to absorb the load. Paralyzing jams, angry and reckless drivers, more accidents, smog, and deaths were predicted as the city and region prepared for the worst.

Hospitals beefed up their emergency room staffs and set up beds in disused wards to handle the overflow. The mayor begged drivers to park it for the weekend, to leave the car keys on the table. Thirty Hollywood celebrities (think Kardashians, Captain Kirk, and the host of
American Idol
) were recruited by the Los Angeles Police Department to send apocalyptic warnings to their combined 100 million Twitter followers. In a City Hall bunker called ATSAC (Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control) the transportation overlords tweaked 4,532 stoplights to shunt
cars away from the 405. The same computer cowboys are Oscar Night's secret weapon, slowing “ordinary” drivers so lines of Hollywood A-lister limos arrive on time. War rooms at FedEx, UPS, and the Port of Los Angeles's sprawling truck terminals rerouted everything they could. But even these masters of the transit universe knew they could not alter the simple physics of too many cars in too little space: they all predicted the event would be the worst man-made disaster in LA history. Carmageddon would earn its name.

Except it didn't. Not one dire prediction came true.

that weekend citywide. There were no major traffic jams. No spikes in crashes or deaths. No escalating road rage or extra ER patients.

Magicians in a bunker didn't do this. Car-centric Angelenos did. They walked, biked, rode Metro Rail, took the bus, ride-shared with Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft, and found their formerly “essential” drives to be quite optional. Smog in the 405 corridor dropped to a tenth of normal and the entire city inhaled 25 percent fewer air pollutants—for an entire week as the event's halo effect persisted. The day-after buzz focused not on traffic jams and frustrated travel plans but on how the city might find a way to make the Carmageddon effect permanent. “Carmaheaven,” headlines renamed it.

To say many in the city were stunned, from the professional traffic czars to everyday commuters, would be an understatement. The 405, like most of the interstate system, had been carved into the city's bedrock with the explicit purpose of appeasing and pleasing drivers, with no concessions or thought given to the barriers it would create for walking, biking, livability, community preservation, or health. Congestion was supposed to be fixed by
such car-centric public works—not by closing them down.

Yet this is exactly what happened on that steamy Carmageddon weekend of July 15, 2011. Trends that had been hinted at for years—how Americans, particularly the young, had begun forsaking car ownership and even driver's licenses in favor of mobility by any means handy, whether bike, rideshare, bus, or train—suddenly seemed to be playing out in real time on the streets of Los Angeles. Every traffic truism held dear for the past sixty years had been turned on its head, from the cures for gridlock to the most effective use of scarce transportation resources. When closing lanes lessens congestion instead of causing it, that means something. And when it happens in the second biggest city and the most important port city on the continent, the world notices. Soon LA leaders began a long and painful reconsideration of transportation policies, a struggle to replace car-centric planning with a focus on broader options for mobility. But the implications of Carmageddon went far beyond one city. They were national, global, and universal.

In Los Angeles of all places—the city perhaps most profoundly shaped by and dependent upon the automobile—America's love affair with the car was being openly questioned. The challenge came not from gadflies and outliers but from the mayor and councilmen and the chamber of commerce. With Carmageddon, the lifeblood of our economy and way of life, the movement of goods and people from door to door, had reached an unexpected tipping point.

ore 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.

What does it take to keep America moving—to keep our cars and trucks on the road, our store shelves stocked, our cupboards and sock drawers, gas tanks and coffeepots full? Like an iceberg, impressive on the surface but with far more obscured below, the machinery of movement grinds away, a heady blend of miracles and madness that enables Americans to drive 344 million miles every hour
and move $55 billion worth of goods every day
(which, by way of comparison, is triple the daily income of every household in America combined)
As big as Carmageddon was, it's just a sliver compared to the global movement machine that supports the way we live, work, and prosper—and that we can no longer live without, even for a handful of days. Look anywhere in the modern American home and you will see necessities, ordinary items—things we use every day—whose journeys to us make Marco Polo's voyages pale by comparison.

So what does this look like under the hood, this vast system that takes us and our stuff door to door day in and day out? What does it truly cost us, and what can we afford moving forward? Are the wheels spinning better than ever, or are they about to come off the rails? Or is it a bit of both?

These seemingly simple questions gave rise to this book. Think transportation detective story, except the goal is not unmasking a villain but shedding light on some of the hidden characters, locations, myths, and machinery driving our buy-it-now, same-day-delivery, traffic-packed world.

Consider the mostly hidden world of car crashes, where the physics of impact meet the reality of drivers drinking, texting, and speeding—where four Americans die every hour, and one is injured every 12.6
. One of the many hidden parts of this violent side of the door-to-door world: we know how to make
driving far safer, and yet we do not do it. A car in theory is just a shipping container for people, which should make it an easy thing to engineer and deploy for maximum safety and efficiency, like a FedEx mailer or stackable cargo containers—foolproof, protective, and boring. But cars have evolved into objects of culture, power, status, desire, image, and habit. Do you know why the standard width of a modern car is six feet? Brilliant engineering? Efficient use of materials? No, it's simply habit and tradition, based on the now-irrelevant fact that six feet is the minimum width needed for a carriage drawn by two horses hitched side by side. It should surprise no one that such a mélange of factors yields vehicles in which engineering and safety have little primacy and, as the saying goes, mileage may vary. Life expectancy, too.

Then there's the hidden world of Angels Gate, the hilltop vantage point in Los Angeles overlooking North America's two leading, constantly bustling side-by-side seaports awash with cargo aboard ships the size of city blocks. There you can find a single mother of four by the name of Debbie Chavez, author of the daily “Master Queuing List,” with which she quite literally holds the lion's share of the U.S. consumer economy in her hands. Angels Gate is where America's commute truly begins, aboard ships piled fifteen stories high with cargo containers, each far safer than your car and each hauling enough products to stock five Costco warehouse stores. On any given day, fifty such vessels are lingering at the dual ports, with a couple dozen more waiting in line for space at the docks. Waiting for a spot on Debbie Chavez's list.

Then there are the steely-nerved port pilots who live (and risk death) by that list as they guide the towering ships past Angels Gate and up to the biggest docks in America. With the skill of surgeons they squeeze these mega-ships beneath bridges with just
a few feet of clearance and down narrow channels intended for the smaller vessels of a bygone age—an exercise in titanic parallel parking not for the fainthearted. Wonder and madness, the new and the old, are constantly battling in the door-to-door maelstrom.

Consider the tiny country that many of these towering ships call home, host to the most powerful oceangoing fleet in the world. This vast corporate flotilla that rules the seas without a single gun, cannon, or missile. All that fleet does is carry 15 percent of the world's goods. And through its alliance with the number two shipping line, it controls a third of the world's products. That's the hidden universe of door-to-door power.

Finally, there is the sheer crazy wonder of it all. The capacity to transport a supercomputer, a desperately needed medicine, or a tube of toothpaste from a factory in Shanghai to a store in Southern California or New Jersey or Duluth—and to do so 20 billion times a day reliably, affordably, quickly, and trackably—may well be humanity's most towering achievement. And yet it is accomplished with so little fanfare it's virtually hidden from public view.

Every time you visit the Web site for UPS or Amazon or Apple and instantly learn where in the world your product or package can be found and when it will thump on your doorstep, you have achieved something that all but the still-living generations of humanity would have declared impossible or demonic.

Consider the travels of that humblest yet most vital elixir: the morning cup of coffee. The day I started working on
Door to Door
, I began my research in the nerve center, fuel depot, energy source, and morning assembly zone Americans know best: the kitchen. In the cupboard I found a half-used bag of Starbucks-roasted, Costco-sold French Roast coffee beans. This is known in the trade as a “private label” product: coffee made by a major brand company, in this case, Starbucks, but for labeling and sale
by a grocery or warehouse chain under its own name and private brand sold nowhere else. America's second favorite drink (not counting water) seemed the perfect place to start looking for the transportation “footprint” of stuff.

BOOK: Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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