Why is travel so difficult and what can improve it?

(CNN) – I haven’t been on vacation for 10 years. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that I am a worker. The other part is that I hate flying. I despise the lines, the cramped seats, the security — it all seems like a colossal waste of time.

I usually keep these feelings to myself. (Who needs to hear me complain more than I already do?)

But then I read a statistic that blew my mind. Despite all the nonstop coverage of air travel, pre-pandemic polls showed that most Americans don’t fly every year. Now, even fewer people fly.

Some of them probably hate flying like I do. This got me thinking — is there a better way to travel?

I decided to explore the solutions in the latest episode of my podcast, Margins of Error.
I started by looking at the way we board an airplane. We spend so much time doing it. Most airlines use something called “block boarding,” which means front-to-back or back-to-front boarding. There is also the window, middle, corridor method. Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, is said to have the fastest boarding process of any major airline, allowing people to claim the first available seat.
However, it turns out there is a faster way. It’s called the Steffen Method, named after its creator, Jason Steffen, a physics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

He came up with a model that shows how and where we store our luggage when we find a place.

“You want the passengers next to each other in line to have their seats spread across the plane so that when one person comes to stop in their row, the next person behind them will be able to stop in the row theirs,” Steffen said. “In this case, it was two rows away.”

By having people two rows apart, “they could both put their luggage away at the same time without getting in each other’s way, and they could sit down at the same time.”

Travelers maneuver through a long line this month at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport.

David Zalubowski/AP

Why not start using the Steffen method? Requires strict quality control. Steffen also said that airlines have so many priority boarding groups based on status that these interfere with his model.

Maybe one day the airlines will change.

And maybe airplanes aren’t your thing. Want to get out in the open air in a car and enjoy the countryside?

If so, there is also a statistical model for you here.

I spoke with computer scientist Randy Olson, who, along with science writer Tracy Staedter, created the algorithmically verified “ultimate road trip across America.”

Let’s say you have 50 countries you want to visit because you really want to see the United States. “There are three times 10 to 64 possible ways to arrange those 50 destinations,” Olson told me. “If you tried to get your computer to find the optimal path by trying each one, it would take about 9.64 times 10 to 52 years.”

This is very time-consuming — more than I can write here — and not really helpful.

The key is to use randomness and optimize the route, Olson told me, which means swapping two of the destinations and measuring the new road trip. “Is it shorter? If so, keep it, if not, throw it out and just keep trying, trying, trying,” he said. “It only takes a few minutes on my MacBook to find the optimal driving route.”

If you really went through the whole ultimate road trip, you can probably knock it out in a few weeks. But Olson recommends giving it a month or two to see the sights.

Here’s part of the journey: You travel north from the Grand Canyon, through Utah and Idaho, before reaching Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Then you turn south, through Colorado and New Mexico, until you reach the Alamo in Texas.

The cost of fuel is a factor in road trips.  Here, traffic picks up in June along Interstate 395 in Washington, DC

The cost of fuel is a factor in road trips. Here, traffic picks up in June along Interstate 395 in Washington, DC

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Of course, driving is all well and good. But what about the cost of fuel? Not to mention its environmental impact, which also weighs down aircraft.

The answer to these issues may in part end up being… kelp. Yes, the stuff that grows in the ocean. Diane Kim, a senior scientist at the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, has been studying algae’s potential as a fuel.

Seaweed is “one of the fastest-growing organisms on the planet,” Kim said. “Under ideal conditions, you’re talking about growth rates of over 1 foot per day. And so you can generate a ton of biomass, which you have to convert into bioenergy.”

Early results of kelp experiments are promising, although the use of kelp as a primary energy source will not happen for a while. And even if we were able to use kelp, it’s only part of the solution.

Kelp may be “about a third of our energy consumption in the United States,” Kim said. “You’d need a lot of kelp and you’d take up a lot of ocean space, but there’s a lot of open ocean space. When you compare it to fossil fuels, I mean, it’s a much better alternative.”

If finding the best way to travel is your thing, you need to listen to this episode. You’ll find out what happened when we put out a call to people who love bus travel. It turns out that they are not easy to find.

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