Archive for April 26th, 2010

On Airport Congestion and City Congestion

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed that “closest thing that we have to royalty in America are the people that get to ride in those little carts through the airport.”

He continued: “Don’t you hate those things? They come out of nowhere. “Beep, beep. Cart people, look out, cart people!” We all scurry out of the way like worthless peasants. “Ooh, it’s cart people. I hope we didn’t slow you down. Wave to the cart people, Timmy. They’re the best people in the world.” If you’re too fat, slow, and disoriented to get to your gate in time, you’re not ready for air travel.”

Now, I do believe these carts have their authentic purpose, though recently navigating the airports of Houston and Atlanta — two travel hubs as sprawling as their host metropolises — I found myself, as I walked, constantly buffeted by their passing presence, or subjected to the very same imperious announcements that Mr. Seinfeld decries (and sometimes they were really quite nasty), and I’d watch as hapless travelers were often forced to execute rapid evasive maneuvers to avoid the onrushing conveyances. And sometimes, looking over, I’d see a boatload of what looked like utterly able-bodied people, looking rather smug. After the fourth “beep beep” in a row I was starting to see the world from Seinfeld’s point of view. Like, who regulates who actually gets on these things?

I thought of this when recently penning a short bit for the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” blog, which discussed the city’s plans to reduce and restrict the amount of vehicular traffic on sections of 34th Street, in favor of creating swifter bus facilities and improved pedestrian access.

The airport courtesy cart is a wonderful way to travel. Who wants to walk Houston’s or Atlanta’s long dendritic corridors (dodging those spillover queues from Auntie Anne’s) when you could be whisked, in comfort if not exactly style, directly from security to your gate? Sure, there’s plenty of mass transit options, like shuttle trains and moving walkways, and there’s always good old walking (which I frankly find a welcome respite after four hours of impersonating David Blaine’s latest act of extreme deprivation in 12F), but who wouldn’t want that private door-to-door ride?

The problem, of course, is that if everyone wanted to travel this way, the airport corridors would quickly bog down in a teeming, thrombosed mass of Lagosian proportions. Airports are able to process huge amounts of people because of mass transit, or because they walk.

And I think there’s something of a metaphor here for the presence of the car in the city of the 21st Century. On 34th Street, as the NYC DOT reports, one in ten people who travel on the street go by car. And yet they are granted an inordinate amount of space, and they exact a toll in time on the vehicles carrying many more people. It’s not difficult to imagine the car, forcing its way through a crosswalk during a right turn (as so many do), as the equivalent of that individual courtesy cart disrupting the larger flow of the stream of airport pedestrians for the sake of its few passengers. Or the driver honking as he passes a cyclist as that shrill cry of “beep, beep, cart coming through” that so vexed Seinfeld. Imagine now if, at the airport, courtesy carts were given wide swaths of real estate in which to navigate, and people on foot were relegated to a smaller, crowded, space, and you have something of an idea of the routine spatial imbalance that exists in New York City.

As with the courtesy cart, the car is a wonderful way to travel — the problem, of course, is that it gets less wonderful with each additional driver. Beep-beep.

Posted on Monday, April 26th, 2010 at 11:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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April 2010

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