Do We Travel to Get There or Get There to Travel?

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in transportation to demonstrate that you go someplace because you want to get there. But it definitely helps to have a Ph.D. if you want to demonstrate that you get someplace because you want to go. This far less intuitive hypothesis has been explored by Patricia L. Mokhtarian of the University of California at Davis, one of my favorite transportation thinkers, and her collaborators.

Last time, I highlighted a paper from Mokhtarian and Lothlorien S. Redmond, which found that, on average, workers have an “ideal” trip to work of 16 minutes, with very few survey respondents expressing the wish that the commute would go away entirely. This suggests that the traditional view of travel – as a necessary evil – might have to be rethought.

In another paper, this time written in collaboration with Ilan Salomon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mokhtarian looked at both theory and evidence on how travel itself can be a positive.

We benefit from travel in three ways. First, barring perhaps a few special cases like a ride to San Quentin on the prison bus, we get some positive “utility” (economist-ese for personal fulfillment) from what we do at the destination. In traditional transportation thinking, this is the only benefit from a trip that gets counted.

But there’s a second kind of benefit, which involves the stuff we do while we’re on the move. Auto travel has come a long way since I was a kid, when whiling away the hours in the back seat involved low-tech “thrills” like screaming when an oncoming car was missing a headlight, calling out out-of-state license plates, and figuring out new and creative ways to squabble with my brothers. Today, thanks to technology, the number of activities we can undertake in the car – from satellite radio to college courses on CD to (kids, don’t try this at home) texting behind the wheel is mushrooming. The authors refer to this as “carcooning.”

And the joys of what we can do in the car are perhaps surpassed only by the joys of the activities we can’t do in the car. For many of us, time behind the wheel is the only part of the day where people can’t hector us to do work of some sort. Who doesn’t need occasional quiet time to decompress and space out?

It might be argued that NPR, Bruce Springsteen and McRib may make a trip more pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean we love travel itself, just the things we can do to take our mind off travel.

But for many, travel – even pointless travel from A to B and back to A again – is a pleasure, not a chore. After all, don’t people pay good money to break their legs sliding down? icy mountains, spend hours roasting in line at Six Flags, rise at 3 in the morning and schlep an unwieldy polyurethane fiberglass board into frigid water, hang their heads over the rail in a squall, and much more (waterskiing, skydiving, snowmobiling, skateboarding, bicycling, off-roading, horseback riding and jogging) just to feel the thrill of speed and the landscape passing by? Isn’t driving part of the same family of activities?

And then there’s curiosity. Where would man be without that age-old desire to explore and gain a feeling of mastery over new worlds, just for the sake of it? Inside every one of us, isn’t there a little Vasco de Gama wanting to plant his flag on a new antique store or dive bar? Maybe the need to strike out and conquer new worlds has something to do with our hunter gatherer ancestors needing a yearning to move on to fresh pastures to search for richer food sources. Or maybe the world is lucky I didn’t go into anthropology.

There’s another basic human instinct involved: the need to keep things fresh. Even if we had the best restaurant in the city next door, most of us would sometimes travel to more distant ones for the sake of variety – variety in the destination, to be sure, but also variety in the trip.

So much for the theory; what’s the evidence? Measuring these phenomena is decidedly tricky. Even if it is possible to figure out how much utility a person reaps from a particular trip, it is no small order to have to disentangle the relative contributions of these three types of pleasure.

Indeed, most trips probably involve a combination of the three, which varies based on trip type and personal taste. An identical trip might even have different shares of each type of pleasure. You might want to see a specific movie on a specific IMAX screen, which means the destination is really the important thing. On the other hand, you might decide you want to make a trip (have you ever asked “Where should we go tonight?” on a Saturday evening?) and then settled on that movie and that theater. In that case, it may be the trip that accounts for much of the fun.

Despite these conceptual difficulties, Mokhtarian and her collaborators have complemented their theoretical work with empirical investigations of people’s attitudes towards travel, and have come up with some interesting results about why we love the phenomenon even as we hate it. More soon.

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  1. RPMcSweeney says:

    Lothlorien S. Redmond! By Gandalf’s beard, what a name!

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  2. Wilma says:

    When I was in high school my friends and I used to literally JUST drive around for a few hours each Friday and Saturday night. We could never think of any particular destination but we did always love spending the time in that Dodge truck

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  3. Joe says:

    My family has a distinction between being “lost” and “not knowing where you are” in relation to car trips. We consider “being lost” as the inability to get to your destination (usually within a time constraint) while “not knowing where you are” is an opportunity to explore new places. According to our kids, another distinction is that my wife tends to get lost while I tend to not know where we are.

    I’m guessing that there might be gender differences in the enjoyment of car travel. I tend to value long car trips with the whole family because it’s getting rarer that we get everyone together in a small space for a length of time. My wife considers it a hassle at best.

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  4. Mike B says:

    Personally I can’t stand driving. It is stressful and the slightest mistake could end up costing me lots of money or even my life. However I don’t mind public rail transport and when I have been able to use it to commute I found it relaxing, interesting and it also provides an opportunity to catch some sleep which can then be deducted from the time of the day that is normally wasted by sleep.

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  5. Steven says:

    I once held a job that was about 65 miles away from where I lived. I got so used to driving it everyday that I would someone get anxious on Saturdays and go feel the need to drive around. I left that job 5 years ago but I still get the urge every once in a while to just go drive to a remote destination just so I’ll have time behind the wheel.

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  6. Thomas Laussermair says:

    Often we travel not to get somewhere, but to do the trip. There is no utility at the destination so much as utility in the experience of getting there.

    This is especially true for muscle-powered travel, on foot, bicycle, by boat, you name it – as one travels slowly and gets to experience the outdoors much more intensely than from within a car.

    Many people have cycled around the globe. Think about it: They wouldn’t have to do this just to get to where they started from. It’s the journey that is the destination!

    Me too, I have cycled from Alaska to Patagonia over the last year, and while I enjoyed traveling to get there, the main purpose of my getting there was to travel.

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  7. Karen H. says:

    If you have a pleasant drive it can be a wonderful bridge from work and home (especially if you have kids at home!) But a long commute on public transit, especially if you have to stand, to get to a quiet and cozy home is horrible….like everything else in life, it just is relative…

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  8. Mantonat says:

    “Brother, I love to drive.” – from Raising Arizona

    Sometimes I leave my office on my lunch break and just drive around.

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