Urban Camping: Living in the Travel Infrastructure

It's nothing new to say that travel by mass transit, particularly by air, has gone to the dogs in the past decade. Not only in the United States but abroad as well, air travel, one of the key infrastructure components of the global economy alongside the Internet and global financial networks, feels more like a Soviet Era concoction of bureaucracy, inefficiency and grandiosity all tied into one terrible knot.

One key issue is the divergence of message from execution in the last 10 years. Consumers of international media are served up ads in magazines, on TV and in transit telling us that air travel has never been more luxurious, monumental and empowering than it is today. Images of Britain's Terminal 5, Beijing's vast new airport construction, Singaporean and Emirates A380 super jumbos glide past us as we wait in line or take a moving walkway to our next gate. America's airlines Southwest and JetBlue tell us we can get from city to city not only inexpensively but comfortably. Seat-back video, sleek interiors and eyecatching check-in desks with automated kiosks abound.

And yet, air travel's real amenities are being pared back as the airlines seek to wring out some savings in the face of a turbulent market—some of which they created. Meagre food, little to drink, clogged check-ins, and nonsensical security that strips any branded airline "experience" of its remaining comfort and luxury.

The resulting behavior that has emerged among traveling consumers is what I'd call "urban camping". Look around you on your next flight. Even as air travel has become truly democratized, it is now becoming nearly feral. Pillows, blankets, water bottles (empty), entertainment (DVD players, massive laptops, iPods, noise reduction headphones), BYO foodstuffs, even the clothing of many travelers resembles more a camp-out, tailgate party or sleepover than a trip from point A to point B.

In short, traveling consumers in the developed world are beginning to adapt to and even anticipate discomforts and inefficiencies of air travel to the extent that they pack as if they were boarding the Darjeeling Express to cross some underdeveloped frontier. Not only are we (I include myself here) continuing to build our bubble of private space through mobile phones, MP3 players and headphones, we are now starting to build 3-bedroom, 1.5 bath extensions to this private space with all mod cons. A glance around any airport terminal will show this—families and their equipment spread out, everyone occupied with a different snack, song, or game, waiting for Godot Airlines.

It doesn't seem likely that the travel experience itself will become markedly more efficient in the next decade, nor are travelers likely to shed much of their gear. Falling incomes may take away our ability to add more "stuff" to the pile, but they may also encourage that much more rootlessness, just as the shrinking formal employment market has pushed that many more "mobile workers" to live and work out of their vehicles, cafes and hotels. A severe downturn could produce whole communities that "live" within the transport infrastructure.