Why is travel so difficult and what can make it better?

Why is travel so difficult and what can make it better?

(CNN) – I haven’t been on vacation in 10 years. Part of the reason, of course, is that I’m a workaholic. The other part is that I hate flying. I despise the lines, the tight seats, the security — it all seems like a colossal waste of time.

I usually keep these feelings to myself. (Who needs to hear me complain any more about what I’m already doing?)

But then I read a statistic that blew my mind. Despite all the constant coverage of air travel, pre-pandemic surveys showed that the majority of Americans don’t fly every year. Even fewer people fly now.

Some of them probably hate flying like I do. This got me thinking – is there a better way to travel?

I decided to explore solutions in the latest episode of my podcast, Make a Mistake.
I started by looking at the way we board an airplane. We spend so much time on it. Most airlines use something called block boarding, which means front-to-back or back-to-front boarding. There is also the window, average, path method. On the other hand, Southwest Airlines has the fastest boarding process of any major airline, allowing people to claim the first available seat.
However, it turns out there is a faster way. It’s called the Steffen method, named after its creator, Jason Steffen, a physics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

He came up with a model that takes into account how and where we put our luggage when we find a place.

“You want the adjacent passengers in line to have their seats distributed throughout the plane so that when one person comes to stand in their row, the next person behind them can stand in their turn,” Steffen said. “In this case, it was two lines.”

By having people two rows apart, “they can both collect their luggage at the same time without getting in each other’s way, and they can sit down at the same time.”

Passengers maneuver through a long line at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport this month.

Passengers maneuver through a long line at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport this month.

David Zalubowski/AP

Why don’t we just start using the Steffen method? Requires strict quality control. Steffen also said airlines have so many status-based boarding priority groups that they interfere with his model.

Maybe one day the airlines will change.

And maybe airplanes aren’t your thing. Do you want to get outdoors by car and enjoy the countryside?

If so, there is also a statistical model for you here.

I spoke with computer scientist Randy Olson, who, along with science writer Tracy Stater, created the algorithmically verified “ultimate road trip across America.”

Let’s say you have 50 places you want to visit because you really want to see the United States. “There are three times 10 to 64 possible ways to arrange these 50 destinations,” Olson told me. “If you tried to get your computer to find the optimal route by trying each one, it would take about ‘9.64 times 10 in 52 years.’

That’s a lot of time — more than I can write here — and not very helpful.

The key is to use randomness and route optimization, Olson told me, which means swapping two of the destinations and measuring the new trip. “Is it shorter? If so, keep it, if not throw it away and just keep trying, trying, trying,” he said. “It only takes a few minutes on my MacBook to find the optimal driving route.”

If you really went through the entire ultimate journey, you could probably knock it out in a few weeks. But Olson recommends giving it a month or two to see the sights.

Here’s a leg of the trip: You drive north from the Grand Canyon, up through Utah and Idaho before arriving at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Then you head back south through Colorado and New Mexico until you reach the Alamo in Texas.

The cost of fuel is a factor in travel.  Here, traffic builds up in June on Interstate 395 in Washington, DC

The cost of fuel is a factor in travel. Here, traffic builds up in June on Interstate 395 in Washington, DC

Kevin Deitch/Getty Images

Sure, driving is fine. But what about the cost of fuel? Not to mention its environmental impact, which also plagues airplanes.

The answer to these questions may, in part, turn out to be … algae. Yes, the stuff that grows in the ocean. Diane Kim, a senior scientist at the University of Southern California Wrigley’s Institute for Environmental Studies, studies the potential of algae as a fuel.

Kelp is “one of the fastest-growing organisms on the planet,” Kim said. “Under ideal conditions, you’re talking about growth rates of over 1 foot per day. And so you can generate a ton of biomass that you have to convert into bioenergy.”

Early results from the algae experiments are promising, although the use of algae as a primary energy source will not happen for some time. And even if we manage to use algae, that’s only part of the solution.

Kelp could be “about a third of our energy use in the United States,” Kim said. “You’re going to need a lot of algae and you’re going to take up a lot of ocean space, but there’s a lot of open ocean space. When you compare it to fossil fuels, I mean it’s a much better alternative.”

If you want to find the best way to travel, you need to listen to this episode. You’ll find out what happened when we put out a call to people who love bus travel. Turns out they’re not easy to find.

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