29 March 2010

A meditation on the practice of driving long distances

Opportunity costs of driving

This has long been my criticism of driving. Other than listening to music and podcasts, there is very little I can functionally "do" while driving. I can compose my thoughts into long form essays for later use. But I prefer doing that right before I commit them to the digital world, in ways like thinking while I shower or run or some such, rather than when I am on my way to perform other tasks (such as work or exercise) because it is more useful to have the fresh impressions nagging me into to actually committing to the work.

Most significantly, I have often taken to using my car to travel moderate distances, interstate voyages on the logic that I can usually use my car to get around more easily once at my destination to attain to daily tasks like eating or recreation, rather than using public transit to cover these distances in the form of airplanes or trains or a bus and then having to choose only those destinations that offer modest public transit once at the location (which is inconveniently rare in the US. Largely limited to NYC and Chicago, both fun places to go, but not where you need to go all the time for a trip).

There's a tremendous opportunity cost in that these long travels forgo far more important things like sleep or working on intellectual problems or conversing amicably with any travel companions. If the car were thus capable, as it should easily be, of navigating over highways to my destinations, it would be easy enough to do these things. The most pressing argument at the moment of a smart car navigation system is the shifting and uncertain patterns of city driving. Highways, by contrast, are best characterized by a great deal of predictable events; traffic will congest near common exits and on-ramps, most drivers will maintain a relative speed with the flow of traffic, and will, for the most part, maintain their lane so long as this occurs, few people brake unpredictably (those that do should be punished as their actions have snake effects far out of proportion to their brake lights at a sudden miscalculation of distance and personal comfort), and there aren't generally erratic turns required. A highway ought to be a perfect place for such a system to work on existing vehicles in the short term.

The long term solutions to things like traffic congestion, which offers more extreme opportunity costs owing to lack of movement and hence wasted fuel costs, is probably congestion pricing models for parking and controlled access roads like highways, but if we can improve the driving experience for people who find it mind-numbingly dull, I imagine we'd be a lot happier drivers and more productive citizens as a result even without removing the waste and inefficiency of traffic and parking.
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