Tag Archives: transportation

What the distance means

What is distance? What is distance when you’re on the last leg of a weekend climb to the top of a mountain? What is distance when the weather is miserable where you live in Western Washington but you have only three days of vacation? What is distance when you’ve got as much vacation time as you want but only $500 to spend?

In the first scenario, I might say distance is the 200 meters I have to keep walking before I reach the top; in the second, it’s as far south as I can get in 1.5 days; in the third, it’s a function of money—how far can I get on $500? It’s space, sure, but it’s also time and money.

A person with a stricter understanding of language would insist that distance is only ever the space between one place and another, but it’s hard to deny that the meaning of distance—how we experience distance—is much more. It’s time, and it’s money, and it’s how we use technology to change the relationship between space, time, and money. You remember the lesson on the transcontinental railroad from eighth grade history class don’t you? The opening of the railroad didn’t shorten the physical distance from New York to Sacramento, but it did dramatically cut the amount of time it took to travel that physical distance. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the West.

Traditional maps have been very good at helping us find the physical distance from place to place, and more recently, network-analysis based mapping services like Google Maps have acknowledged with options for car-travel, foot-travel, public transport, and biking that the ways we understand and use knowledge about distance is highly contingent on how we move from place to place.

A couple of recent mash-ups have developed the idea that the meaning of distance is not always so much about space as it is about how we experience space. Probably my favorite mash-up of the season is Mapnificent, featured a while ago on Flowing Data and also shown to me by AKC. For certain cities, it shows you where you can get from a central location in whatever amount of time you specify when you’re traveling on public transportation. This map shows me where I should look for apartments if I want to be able to get to class in Condon Hall at UO in 15 minutes or less:

The shape of my 15-minute bubble is influenced by physical geography (the river is a definite barrier) as well as the built environment (where are the major roads) and things like public policy (who determines the bus routes or the speed limits?). Beautiful isn’t it! Mapnificent also releases its API, which is kickass if you’re a developer.

A second mash-up that’s a little less cool but still worth a look is a flight-finder from the Hungarian airline Malev.

Enter your starting location and the amount of money you’re willing to spend on a ticket, and the map returns every city you can fly to for less than that price.

God bless creative minds in possession of sweet web programming skills!


Railroad vignettes: day 1 on the Southwest Chief

Train travel is the greatest, and that’s a fact. There’s none of the panoptical paranoia of flying, less of the butt-breaking vibration of driving, and abounding opportunities to meet new people, to sit down to dinner in a restaurant, and to walk about in beautiful places, all while speeding cross-country in air conditioned comfort. My neighbors are fine folks. The girl next to me introduced herself before she’d even sat down (what else can you do when you know you’ll be neighbors for the next fifty hours?); she’s headed to school in California to study nursing or education. It seems there are a lot of students headed out to start semesters across the country. May as well enjoy a vacation on the last few days of summer, and besides, the baggage allowance is great: two checked bags and two carry-ons. And really, who’s counting?

The Characters: An old man from Detroit is two rows back. He keeps making phone calls that end a few minutes in with, “Oh my, my phone battery’s almost dead. But God bless your soul, we’ll talk soon.” But from the way he keeps going, I’d say his phone battery’s fine; he just wants to gossip about the last conversation with the next person. Across the aisle is another funny old man. He’s wearing an obvious toupee over ill-disguised white hair. The woman he’s with is half his age. It’s a wonder they didn’t spring for a sleeper car. Just in front of him is a sweet little girl with her mother and grandmother. After a serious lecture to these maternal figures about her understanding of the body physics behind urination, little Cara proclaimed, “I love you my big mamma. Smell my breath.”

Thus far on the trip, the landscapes have been unspectacular. I love the Midwest with all my home-seeking heart, but with a second-floor observation car at my access, something other than invasive underbrush and Round-Up-Ready cornfields would be nice. I will say this: an (admittedly limited) observational study of Illinois confirms the rumors; increasing numbers of weed species are Round-Up-Resistant. They break up the monotonous monocultures in ominous omnipresence.

I brought along two books for the trip, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford and a GRE prep book. It’s a bad combination. The Crawford book is exploring all these wonderful questions about the nature and limits of human agency in a material world, while the test prep’s winningest line of the day was a doozie: “Plugging in is foolproof. Algebra isn’t.” Thank you, Graduate Readiness Exam, for invalidating so completely the critical thinking skills my liberal arts education has instilled in me.

We’ve crossed the Mississippi, and the sun is beginning to set. By the time it’s completely dark, I imagine we’ll have hit the plains, but I’m taking bets on what city I’ll wake up in. Think we’ll make it to Vegas? I’d better go consult my maps.

(For Drew and Liz: I’ve so far seen three women reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apparently they didn’t get the memo about it not being good travel reading, but I wish now I’d brought it along.)

Crossing the Mississippi

Amtrak tales

Pere Marquette,
Southwest Chief,
Coast Starlight,
Empire Builder.

Those are the names of the trains I’ll spend the next two weeks on. Stay tuned.

Shrinking planet (and warming globe)

I did more flying this week, this time to Warsaw, which is very cold and absolutely wonderful. The flight was about 1 hour and 10 minutes, which is actually less time that it took us to get to the airport from our dorm in Budapest, less time than I spend in one session of class, less time than it took me to make curried lentils last weekend, and less time than it takes to do a load of laundry in our dorm. At 7:30 yesterday morning, I was in the airport in Budapest. By 9 a.m. I was on a bus to the city center in Waszawa.

The only observation I have to share is that I am absolutely amazed at how easy travel is these days (especially when you’re traveling within Schengen countries and don’t need to go through passport control). I know it has a high cost, though, and other than my flight back to Budapest, I will not be boarding a plane again until I head home to the States.

Topography as tonic

I hate flying. The more I travel, the worse it gets, and I was reminded of this yesterday on my way back from a week in Istanbul (I’ll have lots to say about the trip after my laundry’s clean). Mostly, it’s fear. I know the statistics, and I know it’s ridiculous, but especially after that rash of plane crashes last summer, I get nervous on every take-off and every landing and every pitch of the plane in the clouds. But it’s also guilt at the vast amounts of carbon my travel is spewing high into the atmosphere. I’ve vowed—frequently, and always in vain—to take trains and buses whenever possible, but I still end up on trips like this last one: 45 minute flight from Budapest to Vienna, 2 hour flight from Vienna to Istanbul, and just as much carbon on the way back.

So, plagued by guilt and racked by fear, I sit in my seat sipping weak coffee and munching on pretzels, and I pray for it all to end quickly (but not too quickly). On this trip, however, as we made our descent into Vienna, I realized that there’s a solution: topography. My geography student’s pure, simple curiosity about the shape of the land below, about how fields are plowed and neighborhoods built, about mountains in the distance and rivers running through, is enough to distract me and to calm me, and as long as I’ve got a window seat, I can make it just fine.

The carbon question is still significant, and I should probably channel my fear into better transportation habits, but now, if I’ve got to fly, at least the stress of it won’t send me to an early grave. Just another way being a geography major has changed my life for the better.