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'Door To Door' Reveals The Magnificent — And Maddening — Story of Traffic


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about a subject that you probably never think about, the huge distances that the components of your smartphone, the beans in your coffee, the can that your soda is in - even the socks in your drawer - the distance they've traveled before you purchased them. And we're going to talk about the consequences of all that transportation. Think of it as your transportation footprint.

My guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, is the author of the new book "Door To Door," which he describes as a transportation detective story about the hidden characters, locations, myths and machinery driving our buy-it-now, same-day delivery, traffic-packed world. Humes is interested in the hidden price we pay for the things we take for granted. His previous book, "Garbology," was about the afterlife of our trash. Edward Humes, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with your morning cup of coffee. Simple thing, coffee - how does transportation figure into your morning cup?

EDWARD HUMES: Let's just look at the beans - to blend the beans - and I buy it by the bag. There's going to be about 30,000 miles accumulated over the course of the transportation of that coffee from various countries, brokered nations. It's going to be shipped by mega-container ships, by trucks, by rail perhaps. The particular French roast I looked at was - it came out around roughly 30,000 miles. And that's just for the beans to get from the point of origin to my house. And that's not counting the water used to make the coffee, which is also transported, the electricity that powers my coffeemaker, the coffeemaker itself, the filter, the packaging. If you start adding in all that, your cup of coffee's traveled a couple of times around the world before, you know, you take your first sip.

GROSS: Why do I care?

HUMES: Well, I think it's relevant to know where your stuff comes from. I mean, that was what I started writing this book in order to do because I was surprisingly ignorant about how things come to us and what it takes to keep your home supplied with things like coffee or socks or smartphones, whatever product you want to look at. There's a huge transportation footprint. And there's a huge cost attached to that. We live in a very unusual world unlike previous eras, where the more distance you packed into the thing that you were obtaining, the greater the the cost and the greater the risk.

Now, we've kind of flipped that in a very remarkable way. We achieve lower costs and efficiencies through embedding vast amounts of transportation in our everyday products rather than just the rare imports that we used to get over long distances. But there is a hidden cost to that in terms of the impact on the environment, on resources, on sort of hidden costs that aren't accounted for in the price of our goods. And we should very much care because it's a growing impact on our lives, on the flow of traffic when you try to drive to work, as we transition into this digital economy where we're purchasing more and more products online and adding even more miles and trips into the process of getting stuff.

GROSS: Let's look at something else and look at the transportation behind it. Let's look at the iPhone, which is one of the things you write about in the book. Just the components themselves have traveled from around the world. Do you want to just go through some of the distances just the components of the iPhone have traveled?

HUMES: Well, sure, I mean, there's multiple countries, islands, continents involved in the sourcing of the parts of an iPhone. I actually followed one assembly inside the phone - the home button, which also has a touch ID sensor. And you would think, oh, well, the parts all must be assembled in one place and then put together. But it doesn't work that way. The actual glass cover, the sapphire - synthetic sapphire that is the button - comes from one place. And that's sent to the next factory, which turns it into an assembly and adds a little circuit.

And then it goes to another country, and - or it may even go back to the same place again for another part to be added because the expertise has been spread around the world. And by the time you finish this trip tick that this little assembly takes, there's something like 12,000 of miles embedded in the homely little button that goes on your phone. And the logistics behind the fully assembled phone is something like 160,000 miles. And that's just for the parts. It doesn't even consider the raw materials, the precious metals and the rare earth elements and all the other things that have to go in.

And by the the time you factor in that, now you've, you know, accumulated enough mileage to travel to the moon for your phone - for your device. And everything is so diffuse now in how our products are assembled that we've created a huge dependence on transportation technology to carry through the day. And we couldn't really have many of the products we use every day without that sort of immense system moving things around in the background below our level of awareness.

GROSS: You said the big revolution in the way we move stuff around is the shipping container. How did the shipping container change our ability to have this kind of, like, global consumer economy?

HUMES: Well, it really - that's a hot political topic - all these trade agreements right now. But the humble and low-tech idea of a shipping container really was what enabled the offshoring and the outsourcing. You know, back in the - before the era of container ships, the leading technology company in the U.S. was RCA. And they built every aspect of a television, every circuit, every tube. They even had a furniture division that made the wooden cabinet that the TV - everything was vertically integrated. And that made the most economic sense then.

And one of the reasons for that was because shipping was so unreliable and expensive. Ships were loaded like you pack your trunk to go on vacation with the family. And you're jamming suitcases in every which way. And every one's shaped a little different. Nothing packs well. You forget stuff. That's how ships were loaded. You had gangs of longshoremen carrying stuff on ship and packing it into big holes. And that's the way it was for thousands of years of maritime trade. And now somebody gets the idea, well, what if we have a more standardized container, a big metal box? And you pack it at the source with stuff, and you lock it up so it's secure. And you don't have theft because it's sealed. And you don't have loss because you have a big container rather than small parcels. And most importantly, you can build a ship that is designed to just slide these things in on rails and drop them in.

And now suddenly, a vast ship that would take days and days to load up can be loaded in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the risk. And time - you know, shipping time is everything. The quicker you can get something moving and to its destination, the less the cost. And so that's why we've seen the rise from small cargo vessels that could carry hundreds of containers to vessels that can carry 20,000 containers and, you know, move enough to stock five or six Wal-Mart superstores at a pop. The economics of that are really clear.

GROSS: So these container ships are huge. Have you been on one?

HUMES: I have been close to them. And I tried. I went out with the port pilots at the Port of Long Beach and Los Angeles. And those are the biggest port complex in North America. And they see a lot of these container ships, and - but the crews that come to ports don't know the idiosyncracies of every port. And here you have these vast ships. And the last few miles of the global crossing, they have to hand over control to these pilots. And they go racing out in these boats. And it's such a mix of high-tech and low-tech because they have all this GPS and these guidance systems. And then they pull alongside these vessels that, as you get closer, are so vast. They're, you know, eight, 10, sometimes 15 stories tall with the containers loaded on their deck. And it's like a floating building. And this little boat's bobbing along.

And suddenly, a hatch opens. A rope ladder comes down (laughter). And, like, he's stepping off - as casually as if he was stepping off the curb into the street, this pilot just grabs this rope ladder and starts clambering up the side of this vertical steel wall that could crush him like an ant with one wrong step. And he goes on, and he brings it to the port through this very convoluted and difficult passage. These are ships that can be as big as two football fields, both in width and length. And in some places, he'll have the clearance that would be the equivalent of driving for miles with one foot clearance on either side of your car.

GROSS: So these huge container ships are an essential part of the global economy. They're an essential part of us getting all the goods that we buy and having, as you put it, the door-to-door economy. But there's a price we pay for it too. And part of that price is the fuel. What kind of fuel do these container ships use? And why is this considered, like, one of the dirtiest fuels?

HUMES: They call it bunker fuel. And it's basically the stuff that's left over after you've refined everything of value out of petroleum. And these ships - these big container ships don't burn it by the gallon. They burn it by the ton. You know, and they can go through 200 tons of this stuff in a day sailing. And the emissions from it are horrific. It's the consistency of asphalt. You could actually walk on this fuel when it's in the tank. But they heat it up so that it becomes a fluid. And then they can burn it. And there's 6,000 total in the worldwide fleet.

If you take 160 of them, the emissions from just those vessels, of the type of emissions that cause smog and particulate pollution, those 160 mega ships will be the equivalent of the emissions of all the cars in the world. And that's just a tiny fraction of the worldwide fleet. Together, the cargo fleet generates about 2 to 3 percent of world carbon emissions, which would - if that fleet were a country, it would put them in the top 10 emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. In fact, it would put it ahead of Germany - the fourth-largest economy in the world.

So they are prodigious polluters. And the oddest thing about this is that it's all off the books when we look at countries and businesses' carbon footprints because for it to count in the global assessment of carbon pollution, it has to belong to a country. But when these ships are at sea and beyond national boundaries, their emissions aren't part of that accounting. So this tremendous impact doesn't even figure in our calculations about, for instance, the carbon footprint of a product or a country or a business.

GROSS: Wow, that's kind of crazy.

HUMES: (Laughter) Yeah, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah, well, I'm thinking, you know, you live in Southern California. So you have the benefit of the freeway traffic and two big container ship ports. So that's - that's a lot of emissions.

HUMES: It is. And actually, the port has - the ports, the twin ports, have been trying to rein some of that in. And there's been a lot of improvement actually, in part because they were prodded by lawsuits, in part because the state and the nation now has imposed a rule where these ships must burn cleaner fuel when they get within 200 miles of land. And of course, they get around that by - if they're going to - there's always a waiting queue to get into the port. So they'll linger at 201 miles (laughter) and keep burning the dirty fuel until they absolutely have to cross the line and then come in. But it still has made for a considerable improvement in air quality, at least in terms of the emissions from the port.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Edward Humes. His new book is called "Door To Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World Of Transportation." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Edward Humes. His new book, "Door To Door," is about the transportation that is required, the whole transportation infrastructure, for a global economy that enables us to buy coffee beans and smart phones and socks from places around the world. So it's about everything from the huge container ships to the overnight mail trucks that deliver things to your door. So we've talked about container ships. Let's talk about the overnight mail routes that, you know, the drivers have to take 'cause you looked at that, too. And you talked to, like, the UPS people who design the most fuel-efficient, swift routes for their drivers to take. And there are some crazy algorithms involved with this.

HUMES: Oh yeah, definitely.

GROSS: Yeah. Give us an overview of what they're - what they're looking for, like what kind of routes the algorithms are trying to create.

HUMES: Well, it's all about the minutes. You know, the less time it takes to deliver something, the easier it is to achieve the holy grail of online retailing, which is to deliver the same day that something is ordered. And that's increasingly happening. And UPS is one of the many players that are involved in that. I just happened to have access to them and exploited the connection because they're engaged in delivering something like 15 million packages a day in the United States. And every extra minute it takes for them to deliver a package, you know, on the average big brown truck route, adds 12 and a half million dollars to their cost every minute. So they are really trying to make their routing work. The tactics they take, everything - you know, they're somewhat famous for this - eliminating left turns from routes because...


HUMES: Because when you're waiting for oncoming traffic to let you turn left, the minutes are lapsing. So if you can - even if it adds a little distance to always make your turns right and go around to get to where you need to go, it ends up as a net saver for time. And this is the great irony of the convenience of the digital economy because it's making the job of these delivery companies immensely more expensive and harder. And it's adding to traffic immensely because - hey, as a consumer I'd love - I have a diabetic cat. It's not a very nice cat, and we have to get this special food for her that you can't get anywhere. It's made in St. Louis. There's nowhere around to get it. So of course you go on to Amazon and buy it there. And this was revelatory for me. It's one of the things that helped shape this book.

I clicked on it, and eight hours later, it was on my doorstep. You know, a generation ago, that would've seem like witchcraft. How does that happen? Same day delivery of something that you never went to the store to get. But as companies like UPS have to execute that and make it happen, instead of taking a truckload of goods to a store and delivering them all at once, they have to take that same truckload and go to 120 different locations, 120 different trips.

The amount of transportation involved in that is orders of magnitude greater than the old pre-Amazon model of buying things. And that, in turn, has created much more traffic congestion, which in turn adds minutes to the time it takes companies like UPS or Domino's pizza or whatever relies on the roads to close that last mile in the delivery process. It's made it increasingly difficult for them to do it and still be a sustainable, profitable enterprise. So that's only going to continue to get worse over time, until finally the whole thing isn't sustainable anymore.

GROSS: We're talking more emissions, too.

HUMES: More emissions, too, because, you know, obviously cars stuck on the road in traffic are emitting pollutants with no gain. They're just sitting there. So something like a $160 billion hit to the economy last year just in wasted fuel and wasted time from traffic congestion.

GROSS: So in studying the hidden transportation infrastructure for the global consumer economy, what surprised you most? Like, what item that you own or that you use regularly surprised you?

HUMES: Actually, it's the most mundane things that surprised me, like coffee. The interesting thing about coffee is that after it's harvested, it has a very short shelf-life until you minimally process it. You have to to clean it, wash it and remove the fruit. And coffee beans actually are big seeds. They're like nuts. They're not really beans at all. But they look like beans. Once you get it in that state, you can put them into those big burlap sacks, and they'll stay good for year. So you can put them on the literal slow boat from wherever to get them to you. And it's not until you roast the coffee that it then becomes a time-sensitive product again.

So the vast majority of coffee is shipped in that green bean state. And as coffee became more of a mass-produced commodity, the quality of the coffee became less of a concern. And its transportability became the primary concern. And this is - this is the sort of 20th-century coffee model where you would ship the bean to a big factory and grind it up and put them in a metal container that was vacuum-packed, designed for easy transport. And the problem with that is that fresh coffee gives off gas. So the transportation needs of the coffee industry led them to let all this coffee they were selling go stale before they put them in these vacuum-packed cans. Otherwise, the cans would explode.

And so for most of the 20th century, nobody really tasted fresh coffee in America because the way we transported it wouldn't allow it. And now, the coffee companies are just trying to figure out how they can alter that problem and transport fresher coffee to people. And so far there isn't really a great solution. If you don't drink your coffee a day after it's roasted, if it's being transported all these weeks in its finished state, it's going to be kind of sucky compared to the real thing.

GROSS: So really the reason why we have so much coffee in bags as opposed to in cans is 'cause of transportation.

HUMES: Indeed. The bags that they use now have the advantage of allowing the gases that the beans emit to come out through that little valve - that little plastic - if you ever wondered what that little plastic notch is for...

GROSS: I have (laughter). I have wondered that.

HUMES: ...In your bag of coffee beans, it's to let the off-gassing to occur without the bag exploding or bursting.

GROSS: Edward Humes, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

HUMES: It's been my pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Edward Humes is the author of the new book "Door To Door." After we take a short break, we'll hear from jazz guitarist Julian Lage, who was a child prodigy and when he was 16 joined Gary Burton's band. Lage is now 28 and has a new album. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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