door to doorDoor to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
Edward Humes
HarperCollins Publishers
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007;
2016. 384 pages. Hardcover, $27.99.

California-based journalist Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 14 books, including the popular Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. In Door to Door he takes on another complex, resource-intensive topic: the mammoth systems that make it possible (and often frighteningly impossible) for Americans to drive 344 million miles in an hour, move $55 billion worth of goods per day, and receive a cross-country delivery to one’s front door by 10:00 the next morning. We are suffering from systemwide “overload” on a grand scale, argues the author, and while many breakthroughs for recovery are already available (or will be in the near future), the demands they will place on the public purse, corporate balance sheets, lifestyle choices, the working labor force, and human behavior are bound to be disruptive.

Armed with enough statistics to sink a supertanker, Humes reveals the inner genius of the American transportation universe while simultaneously exposing many of its most pervasive flaws. Rather than despair, he plunges ahead with some of his own crystal-ball solutions—some quite novel, others merely a recant of longstanding proposals. Robotics, the decline of China’s hegemony over consumer exports, the blossoming of shared mobility amid a sharing economy, 3-D printing, declines in rapacious consumerism and auto dependence, and many other horizons of change are all within the realm of possibility, submits the author. And everything is in flux.

Take, for example, the deceptively simple invention of container shipping, a relatively new phenomenon. Whereas container fleet capacity in 1980 was a mere 11 million tons, by 2010 that number had skyrocketed to 169 million tons. The proportions of current imports are also startling: 97 percent of America’s clothing, 98 percent of the country’s shoes, and two-thirds of its home furniture comes from abroad. Consumer spending represents 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Satisfying this consumer appetite puts an unprecedented stress on major ports of entry such as the conjoined complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where 27 cargo ships have been known to back up for as long as ten days.

Not only ports, but also railroads, roads, trucking, water, and pipe are at capacity. And yet no political consensus exists to fund infrastructure upgrades. Never mind that “logistics”—the transport of goods—is such a vital component of the U.S. economy that it is “a greater source of job growth than making the stuff being shipped.” UPS alone ships 6 percent of the nation’s GDP.

Humes devotes a lot of page space to a scathing critique of America’s love affair with the automobile. Cars actually pose a “threat,” and in more ways than one. They are described as “…nothing less than rolling disasters in terms of economics, environment, energy, efficiency, climate, health, and safety.” The hidden costs of car use amount to a massive subsidy, which would translate to far greater than $10 per gallon if borne by the consumer at the pump. Ironically, cars sit idle more than 90 percent of the time, but (along with trucks) are responsible for 83 percent of the U.S. transportation component of carbon emissions.

The author paints a dismal picture of the price paid for roadway carnage. He calculates the cost from motor vehicle traffic death and injury at $836 billion each year. That is roughly equivalent to a tax of $784 per person, not just per driver. And yet the vast majority of harmful incidents can be attributed to three basic categories of preventable human error: distraction, drunk driving, and speeding. To hammer this point home, the appendix includes an 11-page rundown of random fatal crashes beginning at 12:15 a.m. and ending at 11:55 p.m. on Friday, February 13, 2015.

Solutions? There are many possibilities, including the Google version of the self-driving car that continues to undergo rigorous testing. It is an opportunity that Humes finds especially appealing, but it may be 2030 or later before the Google brand goes to mass market. Door to Door has enough hard evidence crammed between its covers to serve as a mini-encyclopedia for anyone with aspirations for systemic reform, broad culture change, or merely a rethink of their daily habits. The question that begs a response, however, is whether the momentum can accelerate at a fast-enough clip to ward off disaster.

Martin Zimmerman writes frequently for Urban Land and directs the Green Mobility Planning Studio USA in Charlotte, North Carolina, a firm with expertise in sustainable cities, urban placemaking, and multimodal transportation.