How to Fix America's Holiday Travel Mess—And Why Doing It Would Ruin America
Holiday travel sucks, and probably has ever since a bunch of shepherds, wise men, and angels converged on a stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Every November, every December, every year, America’s highways and airports runneth over, and not in the good way.
Thus, a question: What would it take to make the US a transcontinental Whoville, where the only thing louder than the roar of efficient travel is the constant caroling? And would it be worth the price?
“Well, for starters I would design a system where the power didn’t go out in the world’s busiest airport for 50 hours,” says Sean Young, a civil engineer at Ohio University’s Center for Aviation Studies. (It was 11 hours, but still, ouch Atlanta.)
More seriously, Young says the problems with holiday travel begin because most people are moving through major airline hubs. The best ways to alleviate that strain? Build more runways at smaller, regional airports, and route more flights through them. This would free up the larger hubs to handle the bulk of long distance holiday travel, all those people choosing Florida and Mexico over winter and extended family.
For those big city airports, Young recommends investing in frequent, reliable public transportation linkages. “People leave for the airport much earlier than they need to, which creates additional volumes of traffic,” Young says. If they know they can make their flight with time to spare, they’re less likely to show up mega early and spend six hours taking up space.
As for ground travel, adding lanes and freeways seems like the straightforward fix, unless you’ve completed your Armchair Associate’s Degree in Transportation Theory. “In any situation where you expand the infrastructure, you will encourage travel on that infrastructure,” says Megan Ryerson, a transportation engineer at the University of Pennsylvania. This is the rule of induced demand: If you build it, they will crowd. The real answer, then, is more investment in things like Amtrak, high speed rail, or, because we’re fantasizing anyway, hyperloop. Basically anything that spreads demand over multiple modes.
Of course, no transportation dreamscape would be complete without autonomous vehicles. Instead of a carpool lane, think of a dedicated roadway for robocars, shuttling people to the airport in orderly, automated fashion, no long term parking fees required.
Finally, infrastructure dollars could stretch a long way when applied to little technological fixes, like simply giving people accurate, real time information about their travel. Think Waze, but for everything: traffic, train times, whether the TSA security checkpoint has only one lane open (seriously, why do they do this?). The more information people have, the more rational their travel decisions become, and the less likely they are to trigger gridlock.
Say we did it all: enough runways, planes, and lanes to handle humanity at its most itinerant and quiet the grumblers. Now we’ve got another question: What happens to to all that infrastructure during the 50 weeks a year Americans aren’t trading gifts and political opinions with their weirdest blood relations? Our best guess: disaster.
“If you force Delta to buy an extra 300 jets to satisfy demand for Thanksgiving and Christmas, they would then have to cover the cost of those extra jets,” says (Paul Lewis)[https://www.enotrans.org/profiles/paul-lewis/], the vice president of finance and policy at the Eno Center for Transportation. “They would do that by increasing prices on all flyers through the rest of the year.”
Then there’s the cost of maintaining all the additional runways. Airports, which are usually owned by their host cities, make money by charging airlines a landing fee to use their facilities.
Think of this like a fraction, where each airfield’s numerator is the cost of maintaining those facilities. This stays fairly static. The denominator is the number of flights that use those facilities. “When an airport has relatively robust levels of service, it is able to offer more competitive landing fees to airlines,” says Ryerson. Less traffic means higher fees, and in turn, more expensive flights.
That’s why, if you’re going from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Los Angeles, it may well be cheaper to Uber to the Philadelphia airport and go direct than to make a connecting flight from Allentown’s regional airport. (Factor in layovers, and the Uber might be quicker too.)
Even if built-up regional airports did well during the holiday crush, they’d likely become prohibitively expensive to travel through the rest of the year. And the cost of maintaining the airfields would probably be passed along to local taxpayers.
So once again, air travel would consolidate at large airports, triggering congestion. In a recent study, Ryerson and some coauthors looked at car traffic within a 300 mile radius of large airports in cities like Atlanta, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Phoenix. On roads leading from smaller cities nearby—think Oklahoma City for Dallas, or Tucson for Phoenix—about 1 to 3 percent of the traffic could be attributed to people driving to access these larger airports. “The rural highways had an even higher amount, between 5 and 10 percent of traffic, from people driving to or from the airport,” she says.
Which brings us to the other problems surface transportation would face in this holiday travel utopia. Remember our old pal induced demand? Well, if historical trends and hard data still mean anything to anyone, those bigger roads would entice people to move farther from urban centers, where land is cheaper. More sprawl leads to more traffic, and brings you back to the search for meaning in a world where your commute never stops sucking.
Meanwhile, taxpayers would be stuck with a huge bill for maintaining all that extra capacity. American infrastructure is already more than $ 4 trillion short of adequate, and the federal gas tax hasn’t budged since 1993. More roads to maintain would make the problem even worse.
“The way I explain this to undergrads is that you wouldn’t buy six fridges for your dorm room just because you have one big party a year,” Ryerson says.
Learn From Experience
We’ve never had a transportation wonderland, but we have tried it in bits and pieces. During the late 1990s, the economy was so flush that WIRED ran a 42,000-word article about undersea fiber optic cables—in print—good reading material for all the people traveling like crazy. Airports across the country paved dozens of new runways, and airlines beefed up their fleets to meet the demand. Then the dot com bubble burst. The industry contracted; airlines went out of business or were swallowed up by their competitors. Less than a decade later, the same thing happened: More planes, more runways, more jetsetting, until the financial crisis hit, and the industry consolidated again. “The top four airlines now control 75 percent of all passenger traffic,” Lewis says.
And so this transportation utopia remains a dream, and not the kind you actually want to come true. In that case, the best advice may come from Mary and Joseph: Host the party, and make everyone come to you.