KPCC's special series on transportation.
Hosted by Susan Carpenter and Alonzo Bodden

Free same-day delivery comes with a cost -- increased traffic

Listen to story

Download this story 8MB

Traffic is an unfortunate reality of modern L.A. life. The endless grind of idling bumper-to-bumper, crawling toward our destinations. What’s behind all the congestion? According to Edward Humes, it’s our addiction to next- and same-day delivery. Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.”

The Ride: One of the things you talk about in your book is embedded transportation — the idea that there are tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of miles embedded in a product before we even start using it. And all those miles are usually logged on traffic-making trucks.
Humes: Yes. The car I drove here today, a Toyota Scion, has about 30,000 globally sourced parts in it, and if you add up the amount of distance those parts had to travel to get to the factory to make that car, you can get to the moon and back. We’re talking about half a million miles before the odometer clicks one mile.

The Ride: When you first figured that out, how did that make you feel?
Humes: Mixed feelings. On the one hand, any generations other than the ones alive now would have considered it either impossible or witchcraft to make it economically viable to ship a pair of socks 12,000 miles so we could pay $1.98 for them at the cash register. It may be humanity’s greatest achievement. But it’s also our most horrible achievement because as cheap as those socks are when you pay at the cash register, the hidden price tag on all those miles we’re embedding in our stuff is ultimately not sustainable.

The Ride: Your’e talking about logistics, everything that goes into getting everything from door to door. It made me think of “The Graduate,” and that famous line about the future being plastics. Today, it’s logistics.
Humes: I was talking to the former head of the Los Angeles headquarters for UPS, who said, I tell kids going off to college that if they specialize in logistics or any other area related to goods movement, they will never be out of work. It’s the new manufacturing — moving the stuff somebody else manufactures.

The Ride: UPS is an interesting case study. There are 1 million packages en route at any given time.
Humes: In the Los Angeles area alone, it’s 2 million packages a day; 15.2 million a day nationwide.

The Ride: When people think of what’s causing all the traffic, they just see the cars. They think of movement of people, but it’s really movement of goods.
Huesm: That’s the hidden cost of free shipping. It’s more traffic. UPS is 120 packages on the average big brown truck that now have to go not to one business but to 120 separate places.

The Ride: And most people are truck haters.
Humes: People are irritated by trucks. They’re terrible. They smell bad. They hurt the environment. The average loaded big rig causes ten times the average wear and tear on the road that passenger cars do, yet they’re not paying an amount of tax equivalent to the wear they’re inflicting on our roads. So there’s a lot of reasons to be dissatisfied with how goods movement works in this country, but it’s on us. We’re making it happen.

The Ride: It’s not going away. It’s going to double in 20 years. It’s hard to believe it could be any worse than it is now. What are we going to do?
Humes: That’s the big question. What we have been doing isn’t working. My favorite example is Carmageddon — how we closed down a ten-mile stretch of the 405 freeway. The idea was we were going to put a new lane in there, we’re going to make it better. But to do that meant Carmageddon, which was closing it down for I think 53 hours. The only time traffic has gotten better because of that extra lane was when they closed down the 405 for those 53 hours because people changed their behavior and congestion throughout the region and not to mention air pollution was so much better. By the time they built that lane — five years, $1.3 billion — now it takes a minute longer during rush hour to go over the Sepulveda pass. Because that doesn’t work. Getting people to change their behavior fixes traffic, not adding more lanes, because the cars will just come fill it up.

The Ride: To end optimistically because there’s a lot to not feel optimistically about, what can people do in their own daily lives to reduce the amount of embedded transportation?
Humes: Since I’ve started working on this project, I’ve stopped driving as much as I used to. In Los Angeles, 50% of the trips people take on any given day are three miles or less, but 84% of those trips are done in a car. We’re driving those trips instead of walking or biking, so I’ve made the personal choice to not drive those trips.