5 Simple Ideas That Could Make Travel (And Life) Way Easier
We always hear about how fast technology is moving. Your parents needed 18-wheel trucks and seven to 10 business days to move around the amount of media you can have on your phone in 15 minutes. But when it comes to moving people around, we're pretty much stuck exactly where we were back when we first figured out commercial air travel -- waiting in the same lines at the airport, honking at the same jerkoff in front of us in rush hour traffic. It's just one of those facts of life, right?
Actually, it doesn't have to be. We're sitting on some pretty revolutionary ways to greatly increase the speed at which we physically move from A to B. What's infuriating is that those breakthroughs are ridiculously simple stuff like ...
A Better Way to Board a Plane
It's easy to dislike air travel. Crappy food, nonexistent leg space, hurtling thousands of feet above earth without a firm understanding of how physics is keeping you from plummeting to a nightmarish death -- all unpleasant. But whether you're scared of flying or sitting comfortably in first class, the boarding process has an uncanny way of merging the collective internal monologue of everyone onboard into one harmonious "Fuck thiiiiiiiiiis." The stampede, the pileup. The motionless frustration as everyone tries to scramble for their seats with all the speed and grace of a tectonic plate. It's a miserable experience for anyone who doesn't love having their nose in a random sampling of khaki-clad butts and crotches.
For every one of these there are 40 middle-aged male sales reps who smell like blue cheese.
If a better way to board a plane existed, the airlines would surely have jumped at the opportunity. Surely, they don't enjoy starting every takeoff with a cabin full of flustered, stressed-out passengers. Or maybe they do.
Computer simulations and real-world tests have shown that the current system of boarding -- back rows first -- is one of the worst possible ways to board a plane. It makes sense. Everyone is trying to use the same tiny bit of space to put their bags in the overhead compartment or get to their window seats. And since two people generally can't pass through each other, this causes areas of intense congestion where total strangers are forced to use eye contact and polite small talk to try to untangle complex knots of human movement.
She eventually married the sweat patch to avoid shaming her family any further.
Even the "just get in and sit wherever" school of boarding practiced by some budget airlines is quicker and easier. It seems like that would be less efficient if you view humans as a bunch of automated windup toys. In practice, humans use their twin faculties of intelligence and aversion to dry humping strangers to make efficient seating decisions.
The best solution has been developed by one Dr. Jason Steffen, an Illinois astrophysicist. His method proposes that airlines should board the window seats first, then the middle seats, then the aisle seats, starting first with the even rows and then the odds. With people at the front and back of the plane boarding at the same time, everyone's able to spread out and focus on getting to their goddamn seat already. This YouTube video shows the method in action. The most noticeable thing is how easy it is for people to move around each other in the center aisle when everyone's not stuffing their luggage into the same overhead luggage compartment at the same moment. Instead, people who are far enough from each other to do jumping jacks are putting their luggage up at the same time.
Leaving you nothing to sniff except each others' fear and leaky engine oil.
Even more important is what you don't see in this version of the boarding process:
Unless it's a prison flight.
So how bad does science beat the airlines at human Tetris? Tests show the scientific method actually halves the boarding time. Imagine how much time that could have saved, how many crotches and butts that could have saved your face from, and then try not to punch something.
So why won't the airlines adopt Steffen's method, if it's so much better? This could be due to any number of things, such as people not being so keen on buying first class tickets if flying coach was so fluent. But the most reasonable explanation is they think the system is too complicated for people to understand.
"Go left for first class, right for branding and slaughter."
Remember that the next time you're doing the sardine with a few hundred fellow passengers -- the people running the airline are choosing to sit on the system that would avoid all the hassle, because they think you're too dumb to deserve it.
Make Yellow Lights One Second Longer
What can be done in a second?
Generally, not much. It takes the fastest man in the world almost 10 of them just to run the 100-meter dash. Nothing meaningful can be achieved in one second. You'll survive longer with your head severed.
"Finally, some me time."
Against this background, a plan to make yellow lights one second longer doesn't sound exactly revolutionary. But what if we told you it might go a long way toward keeping your head from getting severed -- by an incoming semi, no less?
BAM! Segue whiplash!
You see, the problem is that intersections are very confusing. With all that turning, it can get really difficult to know where you are going, let alone to avoid collisions with other equally confused people. This is where the yellow lights come in. They're often so short that you don't even get a fraction of a second between red light and being aggressively honked at by everyone behind you. So you rush into the traffic without having assessed the situation properly -- and BAM! Semi.
According to a 2004 Texas Transportation Institute study, a mere extra second in a situation like this would reduce collisions by a very respectable average of 40 percent. It works both ways, too. Going from red to green, the extra yellow second gives us more time to figure out the intersection and observe roadside hazards. Going from green to red, it gives us more reaction time and thus reduces the running of red lights.
"Yes! Another victory, another delay on the road to suicide."
Hey, wait a second. If a measly second can really make that much difference, why do most traffic lights still feature yellow lights quicker than a roadrunner on speed? If a fix is this easy, wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest to implement it ASAP?
Well, no. Turns out, keeping yellow lights short and sweet equals big time dough. For cities using red light cameras, drivers running the lights represent a fairly substantial chunk of revenue. In Dallas, for instance, the cameras have been known to raise $700,000 in fines ... within a few months. For this reason, yellow traffic lights in such cities actually tend to be quietly calibrated even quicker than usual.
"Body-strewn highways may seem inconvenient, but they actually act as pretty effective speed bumps."
Get Rid of Left Turns
It turns out Derek Zoolander isn't the only one who can only turn right. Left turns account for most of the 2.4 million accidents that happen each year at intersections. That's not entirely surprising for anyone who's ever sat through an entire cycle of green lights waiting for the best time to lunge left. But unless you're a traffic engineer, you probably don't realize just how much left turns screw with our daily commute and general safety.
"We've lived our whole lives in here. Dad says our next holiday will be in the trunk."
They're such a statistical problem that UPS programmed their trucks' routes and navigation software to never make them. Not only did it make the routes safer, it actually saved the company enough time to deliver an additional 325,000 packages the first year they put the policy in place. Yes, going out of their way to avoid left turns actually saved them time.
OK, but what about those of us who aren't couriered about by a fleet of delivery trucks? Sometimes the place we're going is on the other side of the stream of cars speeding past our left shoulder, and there's no way around it.
"I'M A TANK, I'M A TANK, GET OUT MY WAY, I'M A TANK."
That's why traffic engineers have been taking the unorthodox step of trying to eliminate the left turn by redesigning the way roads intersect with one another. They've tried loop-based designs like the Michigan Left and New Jersey Jughandle, which failed to catch on as anything other than names for regional sexual maneuvers. They even tried something that looks like it would require a team of air traffic controllers. But when it comes to all-right-turn intersections, nobody's been able to beat the European free-for-all known as the roundabout.
Of course, such laissez-faire intersections might work in Europe, where conflict avoidance is the only thing they take more seriously than soccer. Here in America, we have things called rules, and something called technology, and the Ghostbusters, who taught us that if something is deadly, you throw electricity at it until it begs for mercy.
Nice try, oncoming traffic.
Actually, American intersections that got rid of left turns by converting traffic lights and four-way stops into roundabouts became almost twice as safe and efficient. A 2005 study found that roundabouts reduced rush hour delays over left-turn-reliant intersections by up to 93 percent, and congestion by up to 83 percent. A 2000 study that focused on safety saw a 38 percent reduction in total crash rates and a massive 90 percent reduction in crashes that resulted in either life-threatening or fatal injuries. The reason for this drop is quite simple: By using a roundabout, there are fewer directions from which you can get hit by a fellow driver, because all the cars are going the same way. It may feel more stressful, but your stress is focused on the one thing that matters (hint, it's not the text you're writing to a friend while waiting for the light to turn). There's also the fact that roundabouts require you to slow down, as opposed to yellow lights, which require you to speed up to get through them before your license plate gets photographed.
Unfortunately, roundabouts are more stressful than being told what to do by blinking lights. This makes them extremely unpopular with Americans who aren't politicians looking for something to scream about. Drivers usually come around once they're in place, and saving everyone time and money (by reducing your reliance on the brakes, they can also reduce annual fuel consumption at the intersection by more than 20,000 gallons).
And you can use the money you'll save to drink away the stress of driving!
American drivers can expect to see more of them just as soon as traffic engineers are able to wrestle budget control from the cold dead hands of the people who need to get reelected.
Obliterate Road Signs
It was a typical Dutch small town in the North Friesland region, so dull it barely had a name. That is, until one day someone removed all the road signs.
We're not just talking about a few spare stop signs, either. They utterly destroyed every single aspect of traffic control on every single road. No lane markings, no lines and no signs. Only directional signs, 15 traffic lights (as opposed to the previous 5,000) and complete anarchy.
Look out! She's got sophisticated societal ideals! And a bike pump!
Except that, surprisingly, things didn't go Mad Max in a heartbeat. Instead of holding impromptu street racing competitions in spiky dune buggies, people actually slowed down and paid extra attention to their surroundings. As a result, serious accidents took a dramatic nosedive. Pedestrian fatalities at some particularly risky junctions dropped to zero.
Yes, things got better.
The mysterious someone who had removed the signs had, of course, been the government. The whole thing was an experiment by town planners of the Friesland area who felt like seeing how pedestrians, drivers and cyclists would fare if left to their own devices. While the plan had all the makings of the biggest, most dickish practical joke in recorded history, the results were extremely positive. All stripped roads quickly became so safe that pedestrians could cross with their eyes closed.
Not that anything was particularly stopping them before.
The idea behind the experiment was the theory that relying on signs means you aren't paying as much attention to other people on the road. Remove the signs, and road users actually have to rely on their eyes and acknowledge each other. Also contributing to the safety is the fact that without signs to tell how fast to drive, town area traffic has instinctively slowed to an average 18 mph. The near-absence of traffic lights has helped traffic flow more smoothly, so the overall journey time doesn't slow down too much, either.
"Hey wait, is that car being operated by a human? Move on, good sir!"
The idea of sign-free traffic is spreading through Europe like wildfire. Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Belgium have all taken their first baby steps in removing theirs. Others still are considering giving it a go.
Mind you, the whole no-signs schtick only works on urban areas. We're no experts, but we're guessing the removal of, say, speed limits on a motorway would quickly result in Blues Brothers levels of wrecked vehicles.
"We got a full tank of gas, it's dark, we're wearing sunglasses and my leg is broken in about seven places."
Oh, wait, the autobahn replaced the speed limit with a request that drivers use common sense, and it has a better safety record than U.S. highways. And lest you think that wouldn't work in America, Montana has tried highways both with and without speed limits. The very presence of speed limits doubled the number of fatal car accidents. Again, traffic engineers have been fighting for higher or nonexistent speed limits on highways for years based on evidence that driving without speed limits makes us more cautious when it comes to lane changes and buckling up.
"Your limitations actually seem more like a challenge, Smiley Face Guy."
A Really Obvious Change in New York City Airspace
Ah, New York City! The biggest metropolis on the coast that gets America's day started. A giant knot of humanity, defined by its constant flux of people coming and going. Oh, and the source of 75 percent of all nationwide delays in air travel. It doesn't matter if you live in St. Louis or Seattle, 3 out of every 4 flight delays you've experienced in your life started from New York.
"And if you look to your right, you'll see what the entire world revolves around. Assholes."
As counterintuitive as that might seem, it makes sense. Apart from being one of the globe's angriest hornet's nests for business, the Big Apple is also one of the most popular holiday destinations, playing host to an insane 48.7 million tourists in 2010 alone.
Yet the insane amount of travelers is only a small part of the problem. The real issue is the routes that airliners use to enter and leave the city airspace. They weren't originally designed to handle the two million flights that pass over the city every year. They were designed for the mail planes that connected New York and San Francisco.
In the 1920s.
When the only two directions were "up" and "face down in a ditch."
Back then, New York was lucky if a thousand flights passed through a year. The fact that these routes haven't been updated in 90 years means that a handful of poor, stressed-out air traffic controllers have to maneuver the aeronautical equivalent of an elephant stampede through a drinking straw. Obviously, they're not always perfect, which is what it would take. Flights that leave one of New York's airports a minute late can cause hourlong delays in Los Angeles, giving the phrase "New York minute" a completely new meaning.
That's the time between air traffic control telling you to move off and the plane behind you smashing into your economy class.
The solution, not surprisingly, is to use more sky than they'd originally been using for the handful of mail planes in the '20s. It's not like the sky is getting smaller or anything. The reason we'd been running out all these years is because we just weren't using it. In 2007, after decades of dicking around, the FAA finally started dealing with the issue. Their catchily named "New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan Area Airspace Project" has the noble goal of knocking three all-important minutes off each plane's takeoff time by 2012.
The plan involves three key elements. First, they expanded the designated New York airspace area from its former limits to a much wider area that extends over four states. Next, they added six new westbound flight paths to the current two. Finally -- and this is the kicker -- they reorganized the flights so that multiple planes can use the same flight path. For years, the fact that they were tracking planes on a 2-D map meant they treated planes like they were driving around on a flat surface. It took them until 2007 to figure out planes are able to fly at different heights. The people responsible for the whole nation's air travel have wasted decades of people's lives by failing to take into account the third dimension of air travel.
"Holy shit, is that ... is that sorcery?"
Every time you've sat in an airplane terminal cursing whatever unavoidable circumstance intervened in your life, it's much more likely that it was caused by a handful of guys in New York operating under the assumption that planes magically become as tall as skyscrapers as soon as they take off.
The fact that they're finally correcting this assumption could be taken as a sign that we're headed in the right direction. Just try not to think about the fact that it took one city almost a century to figure that out.
You can find more from Adam at Alert Level Stork! He also helped to write Four Humors, an anthology of short stories published for charity by Wordplague. His friend Kevin Axt also runs the brilliantly funny webcomic Donuts for Sharks and you should go there right now.
For more blatantly obvious things we've been overlooking, check out 7 Basic Things You Won't Believe You're All Doing Wrong and 6 Death-Defying Stunts That Are Secretly Easy to Do.
And stop by LinkSTORM to get back at your boss for making you work today.
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