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Traffic at the Airport

It's hard not to have traffic on my mind wherever I go now. Earlier today, I arrived at Newark's Liberty Airport rather quickly, in part because my taxi driver had chosen to take the Staten Island route to the airport, rather than brave the Holland Tunnel (this after careful consultation of his nav device).

Newark, in August, is bedlam.> Just looking down one of the long hallways on concourse C is to imagine one's self on a broad avenue, thrumming with flows of pedestrians. In the middle, there are people-movers, rather like divided highways. On those people-movers, there are similar moments of awkwardness and frustration as is found on the road, involving confusion over direction, social norms, experienced travelers versus newcomers. People-movers were really meant to be walked on, but some choose to stand, and as "slower traffic" they are meant to stand to the right, but alas, they don't always do so. There can even be subtle conflict between people walking in the passing lane and the faster traffic behind. The moments between people-movers are rather like those "passing zones" one sees on uphill segments on highways, so cars can overtake the lagging trucks.The moments between people-movers are rather like those "passing zones" one sees on uphill segments on highways, so cars can overtake the lagging trucks.

Pedestrians not on the people-movers have, like pedestrians in real life, motorized traffic to contend with, here in the form of those electric golf-cart things that take people to gates. Am I the only one who thinks these things have gotten totally out of hand? Meant to carry people with disabilities or older folks, I seem to see entire families hanging off of them — I, fully able-bodied, was once actually given a lift, and like anything once you're on it, it seems natural, but as I watched all the pedestrians having to dodge out of the way I felt a bit guilty. It almost suggests the dawn of the motor car, when a few fast moving vehicles terrorized all those who couldn't afford one.

Arriving at the food-court McDonald's (I've practically got the pages of Michael Pollan's books taped to my walls, but I still submit to the urge occasionally), I can't help notice the multiple queue system and the oscillating progress of its various lines. The man ahead of me in a suit looks anxiously as the next line seems to be moving a bit faster; he feints a bit, but hesitates, and someone else jumps over — so he edges carefully back into the line he never quite fully left. Some chains actually use a single queue to prevent these feelings of betrayed social justice, but McDonald's doesn't like them because there's some thought that the long single line deters new arrivals. But this sort of tension exists everywhere at the airport — the Customs queue, the ticketing queue, and don't even get me started about the bad merging going on at the security checkpoint, where "OnePass Elite" members intersect with everyone else. Merging at the gate can get pretty hectic too, with the scofflaws who try to crash before their row has been calledMerging at the gate can get pretty hectic too, with the scofflaws who try to crash before their row has been called (something like the equivalent of people who jump to the front of highway off-ramps in an active lane and then cut in).

Lastly, there's the plane traffic itself. It's really the same issues as are currently on the traffic menu in any large city in the world. Like roads, air travel is cheap — at historical lows — and most travelers (except those carbon offsetters) aren't paying anything extra for the "negative externalities" they impose on others by their air travel (pollution, noise, and the very fact of adding to congestion). Instead you hear people complaining about having to pay for Coke and peanuts, as if these were enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and forgetting while they're grumbling that they're paying a fraction of what their forebears paid for air travel.

Raise the cost of air fare, of landing fees, of peak-hour departures, and congestion will decrease.Raise the cost of air fare, of landing fees, of peak-hour departures, and congestion will decrease. As Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser said in his New Republic review of Traffic, if you don't ration by price, you ration by queue. People line up for bargains. Then there's the peak hour problem. Everyone wants to fly at the same time, and the hub structure seems predicated on clustering connecting flights. Another problem is the proliferation of small private jets and regional carriers, which recall the issue of cars versus buses on public roads. The bigger jets (the buses) are often delayed because of many smaller jets (the private cars). We could of course add capacity, but this presents the same problems as adding new highways: 1) No one who lives nearby wants them built; 2) Who's going to pay for them? 3) That may only be a temporary fix that looks wasteful when fuel prices suddenly spike and travel drops; 4) You're hastening the demise of the planet.

My only consolation this afternoon is that I've got an Exit Row seat — poor man's Biz Class — and that statistically, the trip I made to the airport was more dangerous than my (delayed) flight.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tom Vanderbilt writes about design, technology, science, and culture for Wired, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn and drives a 2001 Volvo V40.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do... Used Hardcover $5.95
  2. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
    Used Hardcover $8.95

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)

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