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More Than Getting from Here to There: Author Tony Hiss on the Passenger Experience

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - 06:22 PM

Many planners, architects, and urbanists keep a copy of The Experience of Place, Tony Hiss's classic meditation on how we react to our surroundings, close at hand. Transportation planners and designers may find themselves equally enthralled by Hiss' latest, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, which similarly describes in enlightening detail what it feels like to be on the move, and why. Transportation Nation's Matt Dellinger recently spoke with Hiss in his Greenwich Village apartment about his observations and the potential for improvement in our lives as passengers and pilots.

Author Tony Hiss (MPR image/Euan Kerr)

Matt Dellinger: Your latest book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, describes the existence and importance of a mental state you call “deep travel.” What is deep travel, and is it difficult to attain?

Tony Hiss: I think we're all deep travelers, but most of us are a little rusty at it. Deep travel to me means that state when everything around seems fresh and vivid and memorable and ready to be explored. It feels almost like waking up while you're already awake.

I contrast deep travel to the other two principle states of mind that we're endowed with and that we know a great deal about, daydreaming and focused attention. Both of them are highly valuable tools, but both of them operate by excluding the world. With daydreaming, our mind floats free, but we're not paying attention to anything around us. And with focused attention we deliberately shut out the wider world. Deep travel operates by welcoming the world. It's the “un-filter,” if you will. Sensation just floods into us and yet we're able to keep track of multiple variables. No matter how much of a hurry we're in, when we're in this state of deep travel we seem to have enough time to take everything in and not be rushed by it.

Matt: You write that a friend of yours compares it to the feeling we have when we're lost, and looking for a clue in every little thing.

Tony: That's absolutely true. Of course, that's not the most exhilarating part of deep travel but it is the state of mind that we're immediately projected into when we have lost our bearings—because we need to find immediately some thread that leads us back to some kind of grid where we know what's going on.

And so, as you say, the immediate remedy we avail ourselves of is to just extend our senses in every direction, almost on an emergency basis, so that whatever turns up, whether it's a sight or a sound or a smell, we can connect back.

Matt: But for you this isn’t just about having more satisfying vacations, right? You’re also looking at the various trips we take every day?

Tony: Exactly. Deep travel is not something you have to plan a special trip in order to avail yourself of. You don't have to go to Katmandu or the South Seas. You can get it walking around the block. You can get it on the daily commute. The daily commute is a very important part of it—or could be—because I think we've been inured to the miseries of so many commutes and tend to think of that as something we have to put up with. Why shouldn't it be every bit as rewarding and enriching to life as what happens on either end, our home life and our work life? So that is one of the messages of the book: Let's reclaim that hour.

Matt: Are there modes of transportation that you think are more conducive than others to deep travel?

Tony: This is not a book that's particularly trying to come down hard on any one mode or promote any one mode, but clearly there are opportunities that arise. A lot of people find a chance for this kind of open ended reflection on long-distance train trips. Although others say that long distance bus rides have the same effect, and certainly some plane rides or drives in a car do as well. I will say that circumstances change depending on how much of your attention must be paid to staying alive, to not being sideswiped by another vehicle.

Matt: Yes. Piloting a hunk of metal at 70 miles an hour next to someone else's hunk of metal going 70 miles an hour can be distracting.

Tony: Right. A lot of older American traditions‚ like the Sunday drive, one of the reasons for that was a family outing. But one of the reasons was to get into another way of thinking. I know of people who prize train rides and take them deliberately to clear their mind. A green architect I interviewed called it “Think Time.” She said that she gets many of her best ideas on long distance train rides. And a man called Kary Mullis, who got a Nobel Prize, said that his great idea came to him driving through the countryside north of San Francisco on a beautiful summer night. So it strikes different people in different ways.

Matt: You want people to notice more of their surroundings and use more of their brains when they travel, but it seems to me that people are much more interested in multitasking, and we seek out technology that allows more and more distraction. Google’s working on a car that drives itself so we don't kill each other while texting, and high-speed internet is becoming available on planes and trains. Don’t you think a lot of traveling eyes are moving toward computer screens and away from windows?

Tony: I think that often the reason that we turn more and more to technological devices while traveling is as a protest against the lack of availability of a wider awareness. Growing up in New York I noticed that graffiti started appearing in the subways back in the 1980's at the very moment that maintenance of the system was withdrawn—it was a form of protest. I think not having grown up knowing about how to slip into deep travel, we think that the only options open to us are to do a better job of daydreaming or do a better job of tasking and focusing.

And often the vehicles encourage that. The Penn Central Railroad, when it invented higher speed MetroLiners for the Washington-New York corridor, thought that the only way you could get people back on a train was to design something that looked like an airplane without wings! So they built these odd, little, cylindrical, squatty train cars with narrow, slitty windows, immediately called "cigar tubes" by their detractors. There could be aerodynamic reasons to have small windows on a plane, but there certainly aren't on a train, and those small windows end up telling us that there isn't much worthwhile outside to look at.

It took 30 years, until Amtrak built the Acela train, for the windows to get back to a decent size again, simply because the passenger experience is not yet one of the central criteria of what transportation managers and designers and engineers are focusing on. It has not become one of the core concerns, the way safety, reliability, comfort, or on-time performance are—and it needs to be, in order to protect our humanity.

Matt: So there's a public-policy angle to deep travel?

Tony: There is. On the one hand, people can learn how to slip in and out of this way of thinking. But it's also incumbent upon those of us who have anything to with designing and maintaining vehicles, rights of way, stations, and anything that has to do with moving around to make sure that they respect and cherish this part of our mind and encourage it and give it every opportunity to blossom.

Matt: If you were able to sit down with the Secretary of Transportation, are there specific things you would ask him to think about or do?

Tony: I would say that the passenger experience is something that must be given a central focus. It's the orphan of transportation—and not for malicious reasons, but simply as the side effect of it being something we haven't focused on. The Amtrak car design is a good example. Also, I was recently investigating New York City's attempt to create a taxi of the future, and in the old days New York City had Checkered cabs which were beloved. It was because these were vehicles were deliberately designed to be places that taxi riders would feel at home in: They had a great deal of spaciousness and comfort, and big windows, and little jump seats that fold down and seated 5 easily, and you didn't have to stoop to get in. You really felt like you had a little piece of the city all your own, temporarily, as you rolled through the streets in it. It was quite exhilarating.

Once the Checkered Cab Company, a blessed memory, went out of business, what the substitute was for the most part the Crown Victoria, a Ford sedan. It's not that that's a bad car, it's just that we became subject, without realizing it, to the politics of the passenger experience. By that I mean that most passenger cars in the US are built not for the driven but for the driver. The back seats, since no one is speaking up for them, have rotten suspension, bad sightlines, terrible legroom. So that's what happened to New York City passengers of taxis. And every day there are half a million people who take taxis in New York who all have to put up with this simply because no one is the spokesperson or champion of the passenger experience.

Matt: You wrote The Experience of Place about twenty years ago, but in many ways this is a sequil. The experience of the everyday has remained a concern of yours over the last two decades?

Tony: When I wrote that book, I knew there was a little corner of something that I hadn't yet come to terms with. The Experience of Place was talking about people being affected by their physical surroundings, cities and countrysides. But then there was this other aspect to it, about people in motion, how are they affected. Twenty years later I've come out with a book that's longer than the first book. I had to interrupt it twice to write other books before I could really get it clear in my mind, but this is very much a summing of things that have been of importance to me for many years and I think are important to everyone. I want everyone to be able to feel deep travel. I've even set up a website—www.howwetravel.org—to be a gathering place for deep travelers so that people can begin to share their deep travel experiences and compare notes. Some wonderful things have begun to be posted already.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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