The experience *

This isn’t one of the longest posts I’ve written, or the most interesting. But it is one of the fastest. I’m on board Acela Express train 2165, headed south through Connecticut on my way from Boston to New York. Out the window I can see blue water and sailboats.

That’s my knee in the picture. Note the gap between it and the seat. I’m 6’3”, so that’s a novel experience. There is no gap between my knees and the seat on an airplane. My computer is actually in a comfortable position. There’s a power plug, located on the side wall where it’s easy to reach. Two cars behind me, there’s a café car selling food, whenever I want it. All of this stuff is available the moment I want it – there is no seatbelt light. And the aisle is wide enough to really walk in.

But the best part of the experience isn’t on the train. I boarded at Boston Back Bay, two blocks from Copley Square. No airport shuttle, no taxi, no airport rail link – just take my luggage and walk down the street from my hotel. I got to the station way too early – about 20 minutes before departure. One minute would have sufficed; trains can’t be hijacked, so the TSA isn’t around. And at the other end of the trip, I’ll get off the train right into Midtown Manhattan.

All of this is to say that there’s more than one way to measure traveling. Time is one thing. Comfort and convenience is another. Time-wise, this trip took about the same, door to door, by train as by plane. But rather than sitting comfortably in one place, working, I’d spend much of the plan trip waiting in lines, waiting at the gate, sitting in an airport shuttle, and waiting until we reach cruising attitude. I might arrive at the same time – but I’d have gotten less done, and I’d be much less relaxed.

Transportation planners design for things they can measure. Travelers make decisions based on how they feel. Sometimes the feelings match the planning metrics. But sometimes they don’t. Time waiting feels a lot longer than time moving. Time spent in a comfortable seat feels shorter than time in a cramped seat. Those perceptions are as real – perhaps more real – than the numbers the computer spits out.

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