A trolley in Fort Worth

That’s Transportainment

Transportation and entertainment are ever inter-twined.

Every movie is a road trip*, and not just the obvious ones, like Thelma and Louise or National Lampoon’s Vacation, or Apollo 13. The linear narrative of  movies is constrained to follow the single dimension of time, marching ever forward. While attempts at braking the strict linearity are possible (think about flashbacks, or Rashomon like stories, or Pulp Fiction) within those cul-de-sacs it remains a road trip.

Many stories star or feature transportation. Not just the obvious ones like the Faster and Furiouser series, or Gravity, but any story which involves motion and gadgets. In some cases they attain human-level personality. I have a long series of posts documenting the use of Anthropomorphic vehicles: automobiles, planes, helicopters, trains (1) (2), lorries, omnibuses, monorails, construction vehicles, and boats.

Outside of movies, sporting events, too, are about motion. Running, of course, is simply who can move the fastest (unaided, unhindered). Hurdles is who can move the fastest, with hindrances. American Football is about who can move a ball across about 90 meters of territory with a limited number of stops, ensuring at least steady progress.

NASCAR is even more obvious. A sport that emerged out of the use of cars during prohibition to avoid the law. Going around a racetrack in a vehicle 400 times is interesting enough to attract more than 145,000 people to attend an event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and 7 million people to watch on TV. [Though apparently in-person attendance is dropping]. While we might complain about dozens of vehicles traversing 600 miles and doing no physical work (i.e. returning to where they started), the more severe environmental consequences of the race are not due to the racers, but the fans, traveling hundreds of miles themselves.

Having now been to Charlotte, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I have first hand knowledge of the magnitude of racing in the local culture. You, too, can drive a car on a race track for a not inconsiderable piece of coin. You learn that people have purchased condominiums overlooking the race-track. You learn they are now “right-sizing”. You learn the stands are multi-colored so they look more full in ads even when they are not.

Charlotte Motor Speedway from the Infield

Charlotte Motor Speedway from the Infield

Not only is entertainment about transportation. Transportation has become about entertainment.

I am not talking just about the in-vehicle entertainment systems designed to entertain you while you travel, thereby making travel less onerous (and more frequent).

Many, if not most, of today’s transportation network investment decisions are made by people who won’t regularly use the thing they are deciding on.  In one sense, this must be true, there are many facilities, and only so much time in the day for decision-makers to travel, given our relative centralization of decision-making in the hands of government.

It is not only the specific links and segments of networks, but entire modes that go mis-understood. We have evidence this is true. Decision makers may try to imagine how they will use the facility, but cannot develop a full scenario where their home and workplace and other activities moving, which would enable them to see the package as a regular user. They are limited to envisioning their occasional interaction with the link or mode. In this sense, they are viewing the facility the way a tourist might, rather than an everyday user.

Fort Worth Pedal Pub

Fort Worth Pedal Pub

We posit the decision-makers’ (or anyone’s) view of the transportation modes, links, and vehicles that they don’t use is much as yours is at the amusement park or a place where you are a tourist: a ride, part of an urban entertainment package, an appendage to a game or concert or night-on-the-town wrapped up as an event.

These rides-cum-transportation are designed to lure people who have nothing better to do with their time than be entertained. If these projects were self-financing, more power to them [perhaps raising emotions of disdain for those who have nothing better to do with their time but spend it on a ride and trivial amusements, but not particularly impacting anyone else].

Unfortunately, these investments  are not self-financing, except in the fantasies of economic development analysts and perhaps in the special case of Pedal-Pubs [I don’t actually know the financial arrangement of Pedal-Pubs, but I assume, given their proliferation, they are profitable].

It’s heeding the cry of the child “I’m bored, Entertain me”.

It is fantastic that decision-makers believe our society has so much wealth and so many resources that there are no more important problems to solve, that we can build urban amusement park rides for the sake of the novelty-seeking joy-riders. That we can prioritize circuses over bread. That we can rise up the social Maslow Hierarchy of Needs from security and basic mobility to societal self-actualization and social entertainments. That we can fuse entertainment and transportation into a newly converged transportainment (hopefully obviating the need for entertainment on the subject).

Do they really believe that?

Certainly, most travel is not “work” travel [most people don’t have regular jobs], but much of it is productive (or re-productive). And if everyone had the opportunity to  simultaneously have adequate housing and adequate transportation, then public subsidy for transportation as entertainment (or housing as entertainment – which in the US is generally left to the private sector) would not be the worst way to spend our social surplus.

Yet I keep hearing that there is insufficient affordable housing, and more than a few people walk or ride bikes not out of choice but for lack of affordable faster modes, and many people ride on buses that take 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 times as long as cars for the same trip (not even considering schedule delays) because they cannot afford or otherwise cannot drive a car, AND because the transit system is so poorly designed it takes so long to get to many places.

Every 1.7 billion dollars spent as part of the urban transport-tainment system is 1.7 billion dollars that cannot be spent on more serious and economically productive urban needs of travelers without the luxury of time and choice, improving their safety and reducing their travel times, or just giving them the resources to make choices.


* A comment first noted by my wife, a lit-crit major in college.

Transportainment River is the appropriate name of a company that builds waterpark rides.