Is Our Transportation System Magnificent, Mysterious or Just Maddening?
If you followed my recommendation to check out Parag Khanna's new book Connetography, and were frustrated to find it to be a dense, academic read, you will be pleased with my latest recommendation, Door to Door. The author, Edward Humes, is definitely more geared to popular writing having written 14 books, earned a Pulitzer Prize and being a regular writer for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the New York Times. In Door to Door, Humes tackles the same issue as did Khanna--how important are logistics and supply chains to the economy and our life styles? His answer is both entertaining and frightening. He begins by describing the congestion of the Los Angeles highway system and follows with a detailed description of the transportation footprint (how many miles of transportation are involved in a product’s production process) of a ubiquitous product--the soda can. Quickly, he convinces us that our lives depend on as well as are being destroyed by the transportation required for even the simplest products in our market baskets.
Humes has four basic themes within his book:
- Our everyday products have gigantic transportation footprints;
- As a result, every part of our transportation system is terribly congested;
- Increasingly sophisticated application of information technology is our only path around this congestion; and
- Failure to make significant investments in our transportation infrastructure could be perilous.
He does not, however, see our prospects as hopeless. He describes five trends that have the potential to change the calculus of the transportation dynamic:
- The transformation of China into a modern economy raising their wage structure and making increased foreign investment in Chinese manufacturing less attractive;
- The re-shoring to the U.S. of off-shored manufacturing;
- The development of 3-D printing manufacturing potentially allowing products to be made even as they are being delivered;
- The expansion of sharing/crowd-sourced traffic apps and ride sharing (Uber, for example); and
- Driverless cars, trucks and airplanes.
The net effect of these changes will be to reduce the amount of driving on American roads and to increase the degree to which products are manufactured here in the United States as opposed to abroad. Actually, per capita driving peaked in 2005; and only our recent experience in cheap gasoline has caused the annual rates to increase in the last two years. Clearly, the change is even more dramatic for Millennials—driving by 16 to 34 year-olds has dropped by almost 25 percent in the last decade! The growth of Uber and similar “sharing economy” companies is likely to change traditional travel patterns even further. And driverless vehicles could be a reality as early as 2020.
Just as Khanna provided a comprehensive picture of the supply-chains from a global perspective, Humes provides an understandable and entertaining picture of what these supply-chains mean for you and me in our everyday lives--dare I say "where the rubber meets the road"? If you're interested in a frightening and informative read, Door to Door is a book you shouldn't miss.