Sunday, November 26, 2006

Consuming transport

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year in the United States. It has been a very strange day for me -- I've driven roughly 50 miles today, after having forgone air travel the entire holiday weekend. Thanksgiving weekend has been a departure from a travel year that has come up boxcars: In 2006, I've flown roughly 60,000 miles and driven roughly 6,000. Hmmm . . . 6-6-6. A very good number in Risk; a very bad number in Revelations. Let's roll.

Brave New WorldAll this thinking about transportation turned my mind to the cultural and sociological issues that arise from the types of transportation we as individuals consume. Mustapha Mond, the moody and manipulative World Controller of Brave New World, coldly observes that his government's systems of social and economic control are designed to encourage citizens to "consume transport." And consume we do. Without doing more research than a single Google search, I found these statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas as part of its evaluation, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, of the relative risks of driving and flying:

U.S. annual averages1946-19501966-19701996-2000
Billions of miles driven3981,0202,624
Motor vehicle fatalities32,96654,31841,755
Deaths per billion miles driven82.753.315.9
Billions of miles flown8110630
Airline fatalities14014590
Deaths per billion of miles flown16.71.30.14


BrainThe Dallas Fed offered these data to demonstrate propositions that should be familiar to most of us. Mile by mile, it's much safer to fly than to drive. Although both road safety and aeronautic safety have improved since the 1940s, we've made more dramatic gains by air. Road safety improved by a factor of five; aeronautic safety, by a factor of 100. Strikingly, it's as safe to drive today as it was to fly sixty years ago, but improvements in aeronautic safety have made a quantum leap in the meanwhile. None of this, of course, overcomes the flawed heuristics by which many people perceive driving to be safer ("At least I'm in control" and "I'm a better driver than others," not to mention the salience of airliner crashes). And judging by readers' reactions to a leading study on the comparative risks of different modes of transportation, having an advanced degree or two does little to deter reliance on risk-evaluating heuristics that are as flawed as deeply as they are embedded in the adapted mind.

As I've said, none of this is terribly new or exciting. What caught my eye in the Dallas Fed's statistics was the change in the ratio of road miles traveled to air miles traveled:

Years1946-19501966-19701996-2000
Ratio of miles driven
to miles flown
49.89.34.2


Collectively speaking, we Americans are becoming fugitives and vagabonds above the earth.

What I now ponder is this: Even though declines in the real cost of commercial air travel means that Americans today are much likelier to fly than in years past, the distribution of those air miles surely must be very, very skewed. To what extent do individual differences in modes of travel correlate with a wide range of social, cultural, economic, and political differences?

Here are some off-the-cuff hypotheses. (Remember: my research has been limited to a single Google search, roughly the same amount of effort it took me to find the William Blake painting at left.) The average American, one must surmise, drives more miles than she or he flies. Those who fly more than they drive -- let alone those high-fliers whose air miles exceed miles logged in a car by an order of magnitude -- surely occupy such rarified social, economic, cultural, and political space that they risk losing touch with the concerns of their fellow citizens.

Abandoned carAnd this is to say absolutely nothing of those too poor to drive. One of the saddest moments I experienced in preparing Disasters and the Law: Katrina and Beyond with Dan Farber was the realization that the United States' collective policy for evacuating New Orleans in the event of a hurricane hinged entirely on cars. From the office of the mayor to FEMA and the White House, every governmental official simply assumed that the residents of New Orleans could drive themselves to safety.

All my hypotheses aside, this much I do know. On Thanksgiving weekend 2006, I am thankful -- and humbled and embarrassed -- to number among those who "consume transport" as profligately as I do. The time has come to give back, pay forward, and reach deep. I repeat: to those whom much has been given, much will be expected.

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