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Sunday, May 19, 2024

As the Nation Reopens, Americans Are on the Road Again

People are heading outdoors this summer. And after many long months of sagging business, transportation services—from airlines to rental car companies to public transit agencies—are offering deals and prizes to woo travelers back onto their platforms. But they also have to figure out how to handle the surge in demand, especially after being forced to make major cutbacks during the pandemic, when ridership numbers plummeted.

This week on Gadget Lab, we talk with WIRED transportation writer Aarian Marshall about mass transit and how to travel—both close to home and far from it—during your hot vax summer.

Show Notes

Read Aarian's story about the shortage of gig workers at ride-hail companies. Read reporting about Uber Pool and Lyft Line from Business Insider and Buzzfeed. Follow all of WIRED’s transportation coverage here.


Aarian recommends a collapsible tea kettle. Mike recommends the book Bicycle Diaries by musician David Byrne. Lauren recommends Lindberg Snider porterhouse & roast seasoning.

Aarian Marshall can be found on Twitter @AarianMarshall. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Lauren Goode: Mike.

Michael Calore: Hi, Lauren.

LG: Hey, Mike, I can't believe that I finally get to ask you this during what feels like our millionth remote recording of Gadget Lab due to the pandemic. But are you taking any trips this summer?

MC: Yes, I am. I've got two trips on the books, one for June, one for July.

LG: Oh, yeah. The July one was the one that I think I was just going to tag along, right?

MC: That's right, yes.

LG: I sort of invited myself to Yosemite.

MC: Thank you.

LG: So, is this travel stressing you out at all?

MC: A little bit, but I'm mostly looking forward to it.

LG: Well, that doesn't surprise me given what a chill dude you are, but we're going to talk all about summer travel. I know it might be a little more stressful than you anticipated on today's Gadget Lab.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

LG: Hey everyone, welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: And I'm Michael Calore. I am a senior editor at WIRED.

LG: We're also joined by WIRED transportation writer Aarian Marshall, who's joining us from Washington, DC. Aarian, thanks so much for coming on the show again.

Aarian Marshall: Thanks for having me.

LG: All right, so let's get moving. Ba-dum dum. This week, we're talking about travel. You've probably noticed that the US is well on its way to opening back up. California, where Mike and I are, just lifted all of its Covid restrictions this week, and people are out and about. And for vaccinated people, that may mean maskless grocery store shopping, going to bars again, and yes, travel. So, today in the second half of the show, we're going to take a look at how transit agencies are trying to lure people back onto public transit. But first, let's talk about the hot vax summer and why your plans for that long-awaited vacation may come to a screeching halt when you go to book your rental car. So, Aarian, what is going on with rental cars? Explain this for us, please.

AM: Yeah. This is a kind of a perfect storm here that's gone on. During the pandemic and even a little before the pandemic, some of the big rental car companies in the country—that's like Hertz and Avis and those kind of guys—that no one needed rental cars during the pandemic so they sold off a lot of their cars and they also didn't buy new cars. And as a result, as business starts to come back, they have a lot fewer cars than they did like 15 months ago. Another problem that's come up now is that there's this semiconductor shortage, which has really affected a ton of industries we follow at WIRED, but specifically the automotive industry. And so there aren't a ton of new cars for these rental companies to buy. So once you get to that rental car counter at the airport, once you arrive, you may find that it's, you kind of have to duke it out with the guy next to you for whatever remaining stuff they have at the counter.

LG: I had an experience the other day where I went on to Kayak.com. Typically, when you use Kayak for any kind of travel booking, you just get this glut of responses because the site is indexing from so many different sources around the web. And I was looking specifically at one of the Hawaiian islands, just for curiosity sake, plugged in some dates in July, hit “rental car,” and it was the first time I think I've ever used Kayak in my life that literally nothing came up. There were no results for that week. And I was like, wow. I mean, you could not get a rental car. Another friend of mine was telling me that on Maui, where he is, where he lives, that the locals are taking unkindly to people who have decided to rent U-hauls and use them as their vacation trucks because it's so difficult to get a rental car.

MC: Is that a thing that's happened?

LG: I know that it's very much an anecdote, but according to this person who happens to be a journalist, this was a thing. My question though, Aarian, about what you said about the rental car companies having sold off inventory but also not purchase new inventory, how frequently do rental car companies typically buy new fleets?

AM: That's a great question, and I don't totally know the answer to it, but what I do know is that rental car companies are actually a huge source of the used-car market in this country. So, weirdly, as this kind of works down the supply chain, there's also, if you've tried to buy a car recently, you might notice that it's hard to find a used car, and rental-car companies are actually contributing to that because they aren't getting rid of the vehicles in the ways they used to, because they just don't have vehicles to get rid of.

MC: I want to pivot a little bit and talk about the middle part of the equation, which is the airplane trip. We all have seen reports that air travel is coming back; people are flying again. What sorts of precautions are agencies like the FAA and the TSA taking in order to make sure that the coronavirus doesn't spread on airplanes again like it did at the start of the pandemic? Are they requiring people to be vaccinated, other policy changes?

AM: My understanding of the way it's working right now is that a lot of airlines are setting their own policies. So, most have gone back to, I think almost all of them, have gone back to seating people in the middle seat again, which is a bummer for travelers but probably good for the airlines so that they can start making money again. I don't believe there are any in the US that require proof of vaccination or something like that before you get on a plane. There are some particular destinations that require it, so if you're flying overseas, there are some places that require that you prove that you're vaccinated, but that's not the case domestically.

They're also asking that you wear masks, especially if you're not vaccinated. And it's created this weird, and just based—I haven't been on a plane for a while—but based on some reporting I've read, it's created this weird situation, particularly for people who staff airplanes, who are feeling kind of uncomfortable in this weird gray area we found ourselves where some people say, "I don't need to wear a mask anymore." Some people are really into wearing masks, and I think now that there's more people on planes, it's hard to really enforce the rules. Which is all to say, if you do fly, pay attention to what the people are telling you and follow rules, people. Don't be mean.

LG: What do you think are some of the airline changes that will stick from this time? For example, we know that the airlines were blocking middle seats so that people could have a little bit more space. And now, for the most part, I mean, I just flew a few weeks ago, the plane was packed. People were definitely occupying middle seats. They're not going to stay empty forever because airlines, at the end of the day, want to make money. But I'm wondering if airlines will take this as an opportunity to cut other costs, like never serve free drinks again or start to charge even more for carry-on luggage or checking bags and that sort of thing. How do you think this will fundamentally change our flying experience?

AM: I'm not sure that there'll be any sort of big, lasting changes to this dip. Like after September 11, for example, we saw airlines create all these new fees—they started bringing on more baggage fees—and I don't think we'll see that following this huge dip in business. And I think that's partially because they're seeing that, as you observed on your flight, that people are coming back to flying super quickly. So I don't think there are any specific plans in the works to make anything permanent. One change that is happening that's sort of not related to the pandemic, but that I've been keeping my eye on, is that there are new rules out of the FAA that airlines don't have to accommodate emotional support animals, which is like a little loophole that a lot of people used to use to get their dogs onto planes.

They would just have a mental health professional write them up a letter that was like, "This is definitely an emotional support animal," and a lot of airlines are cracking down on that. I'm actually, I'm going to LA soon, and we are bringing our 11-pound dog on the flight, and we've always paid for him, but now, we're still definitely paying for him, and I think his ticket is as much as ours right now. So, that'll be sort of a shock to some people as they get back on flights after this break.

MC: I'm sure we'll hear all about it on Twitter.

LG: I also think it's fair to say that, during the pandemic, particularly for those who have been working from home nonstop, that our pets did become emotional support animals, whether it's official or not.

AM: Yes. But also, I am his emotional-support human in a way that's a little problematic now, so we're working on it.

LG: What I hear you describing is a codependent relationship, Aarian.

AM: Yes.

MC: What is going on with the cruise industry right now?

AM: Yeah. This isn't an industry I follow super closely. I've never personally been on a cruise and I don't really, and all power to cruisers and people who keep that great industry afloat, that ain't me. So, I won't be going on a cruise anytime soon, but I wish them the best.

LG: Oh, Aarian, that was so diplomatic. I mean, you really—much better than the note I left in the script expressing my true feelings about cruises.

AM: Right.

LG: All right. On that note, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk all about public transit, and frankly how excited I am to get back to using it.


LG: During the past year and a half of the pandemic, ridership on public transit basically plummeted. A lot of desk workers were staying home, or people just didn't feel safe packing into a subway car with lots of other people. And like airlines and other travel services, public transit agencies took a big financial hit. But as people start to get moving again, cities and transit agencies are trying to lure people back onto public transit. Aarian, you've been reporting this out for WIRED, and you've been looking into how transit agencies are—they're kind of trying some out-of-the-box tactics to get riders back. So, what are they offering people, and will this work?

AM: Yeah. So this is, I've talked to a bunch of people that run transit agencies and then also the people that take transit, and I think the entire industry really recognizes that this is a really important moment, because they do want to get riders back on transit both because they want more customers but also because transit is so important to cities, like public health goals, their climate goals—you always want to get more people out of cars onto the bus, onto the trains. This is a really important moment where agencies know that as people slowly start to go back to work, they are forming new habits. Maybe the got really into biking over the pandemic because it felt safer. And do cities want people to stick with biking, do they want them back in cars? Probably not. Do they want them to take the bus sometimes? Probably yes.

So, agencies are getting a little bit more nimble and thoughtful about how to get people to use their services. One thing that is maybe doesn't sound so out of the box but is pretty interesting is that they're offering fare reductions. BART, for example, in San Francisco, anticipates a lot of people are going to be going back to work in September, so they are offering half off Clipper cards for the month, which is the fare card you use to get onto BART. They're doing a similar thing in New Orleans, and then some transit agencies and transit advocates have really sort of taken advantage of the pandemic by pushing a long-standing, hoped-for agenda item, which is free fares, and particularly free fares for students, free fares for people who have lower incomes, for whom it's relatively more expensive to take transit.

LA, for example, has actually committed to running a 23-month pilot. They're not quite sure when it's going to start, but soon they're going to start a pilot where anyone from K to 12, and then also people in community college, will have access to free fares on Metro. And then, eventually, they'll also move it to just the kind of wider lower-income population in Los Angeles. Boston's also looking into something similar, and Kansas City decided in March to just stop charging for their bus and light rail system. So this is a big movement that's gained steam and is really sort of interesting, and the finances are interesting; agencies are trying to work out how to pay for it, but could be a big change when things open up again.

MC: One of the big changes that a lot of cities made at the start of the pandemic was, when they saw ridership plummet, they cut a lot of service. And now, I noticed cities are having a bit of a difficulty ramping that service back up to pre-pandemic levels. How's that going?

AM: Yes, that's definitely something that's true and something that agencies are doing, much like other parts of government and all sorts of businesses, are trying to look into the future and figure out, are people going to be going back to work full-time or are they going to be telecommuting a few days a week? When are people going to be traveling? When do we need to provide service for people who are traveling, and what sort of people are traveling? Are there going to be more shift workers? Are there going to be more office workers? Are there going to be more child care people on the move? All those people have different needs. Actually, something interesting that has also been going on during the pandemic is, agencies really using this time to rethink how their schedules work.

So, if those 9-to-5ers aren't going back to the downtown office in the way they were before, does it make sense for agencies to actually run trains or buses more frequently throughout the day so that they can serve more of those shift workers, more of those child care workers, more of those people who have these schedules that we kind of think is of as atraditional but are actually becoming much more common over the past 30 years or so. And this is really part of some bigger conversations that have, I think really come out of the murder of George Floyd and things that happened last summer, that sort of pushes for social justice in all parts of American life. People in the transit industry are asking, "How can we make sure that our services are really serving the communities that live where we are, whether they are people of color, whether they're women, whether they're lower income?"

LG: Aarian, there was a period of time last year, I think primarily when cities were focused on sanitizing public transit, and in some ways, we've now started to identify this as pandemic theater, but for example, in May of 2020, the MTA in New York City said it had purchased 150 UV light machines. They'd spent a million dollars on it, and they were running a pilot program to basically try to sanitize the subway. Is that still happening? Are cities still trying to clean public transit better and more effectively? And what do we know now about what needs to actually happen on public transit in order to make it relatively safe from pathogens?

AM: Yeah. I think much like even during the pandemic, when we were still learning about things, there's this interesting gap between what the science says that we have to do and what agencies need to do to make people comfortable even if it's not totally scientifically valid. I think a lot of agencies, internal surveys, have shown that people really like when the subway or the bus is cleaner. It costs the agencies a lot of money, so it's something they have to balance, but I think they're also realizing that if they do want to get people back on the bus, they're going to have to keep cleaning in the way that they learned over the pandemic, even if science shows that it's not something you're necessarily going to pick up from touching the wrong surface. We now know that it's mostly respiratory, but people like stuff to be cleaner, and clean is good.

MC: As long as the kids on the 12 Folsom keeps smoking the blunts in the backseat, I think we'll be OK.

AM: They're cleansing the air.

LG: Yes, clean is indeed good. And Mike, I want to ride whatever bus you're riding. OK, so one observation—

MC: It's not running right now.

LG: That's true.

MC: I have no idea when it's going to come back.

LG: Is that the bus that we took to—that's the bus that we took from the office to the bar that time.

MC: Yeah.

LG: When I had a date.

MC: It runs from the office to my house.

LG: Right.

MC: Yes.

LG: I had a date, and you accompanied me to my date like a good friend and colleague.

MC: I did not.

LG: You were making sure I was getting there OK.

AM: He escorted you.

LG: OK, yes. That was a one and done. OK. Another observation that people have been making is that in certain areas, it's been more challenging to get an Uber or a Lyft, and that prices have increased. What's causing this? Is it fewer drivers? Are Uber and Lyft jacking up prices in an attempt to maybe someday actually turn a profit? What's happening here?

AM: Yeah. Not to toot my own horn about this, but I actually wrote about this much earlier this spring, because it was something that the ride-hail companies were very subtly signaling that they were worried about, which is, the first thing you mentioned, the driver shortage issue. And they have a few theories about why drivers aren't coming back in the way they used to. One is that they are still a little nervous about their health, which is totally fair. And when you drive for Uber, for example, you're kind of like trapped in a car with another person, and even if everyone's wearing a mask, you still might not feel safe doing that. And then another thing they think is that—which this doesn't necessarily say good things about our economy or these companies—but that people are feeling much more secure financially because of all the stimulus that people got over the pandemic from the federal government, and they're not feeling the need to kind of hustle on that second job, which could be delivering for DoorDash or driving for Uber or Lyft, in the way that they did before.

So, they're just not coming back. As a result, you are seeing higher prices. Some people are having, as you've said, a really hard time getting timely rides. There was a Ford executive who I think spent like $200 going from Manhattan to JFK a few weeks ago, which is much more expensive than it used to be. So, yeah, it's can be rough out there for ride-hail. I think much like flight attendants, Uber and Lyft drivers are dealing with some of the same issues where some people don't want to wear masks, they're over it. Even if they're not vaccinated, they don't believe in vaccines for whatever reasons, and they have to deal with those interpersonal issues without … The flight attendants have a union, but Uber and Lyft drivers are independent contractors, technically, so they don't have a lot of help or backup in dealing with unruly passengers, people that are drunk because it's hot vax summer, and that's what people are doing now.

LG: Right. Yeah.

AM: It's not necessarily a fun job right now.

LG: Right. I mean Uber and Lyft drivers were dealing with a lot before the pandemic, and in some cases working really long days and long hours just trying to eke out a living and, of course, sharing their profits with Uber and Lyft to the platform owners. And now, on top of it, they'd have concerns about their health or people just being unruly or inconsiderate. I could see how you'd be resistant to going back to driving or driving full time, and the takeaway from that, people, is don't be an asshole to your Uber or Lyft driver, or your flight attendant for that matter.

AM: Right, right. I've also heard stories from drivers where they say, "I came and picked this person up, but they had been waiting for a half an hour to get picked up and they were mad at Uber and they yelled at me." But like, your driver has nothing to do with it. Uber is matching algorithms, so don't take it out on them.

MC: I can imagine when UberPool and Lyft Line eventually come back—they're not back in the app yet, as far as I know. But I imagine that when they do appear, it's going to be quite different than it was a year and a half ago.

AM: Yeah, I think it's actually a really, an open question whether those services will come back at all. There's been some interesting reporting that have come out of places like Buzzfeed and Business Insider in the past year or so that have showed that those services have been huge money losers for Uber and Lyft, really inefficient. They've worked a lot on the algorithms that have matched people and it's gotten a lot better, but I don't—that was not like a winning part of their service. And they may find that it doesn't make sense to bring it back. Or as you said, they'll bring it back and it'll look really different, and it'll be more expensive than it used to be.

LG: Aarian, this has been super illuminating. Let's take another quick break, and then when we come back, we're going to share our recommendations with all of you.


LG: All right. Aarian, as our guest of honor this week, what is your recommendation?

AM: OK. I have recently beefed up my car-camping gear because that feels like that's going to be my hot vax summer, as I'm going to go sleep in the woods a lot. I just bought a collapsible tea kettle to use on a camping stove, but it can be used on any stove, and I just like it because it's so easy to store, and when you travel again after being inside forever, it's nice to have your little caffeine device with you at all times, and it just slides into a suitcase or a backpack, and I'm just very pleased by it. It's like this little silicon collapsy thing.

MC: That would be silicone.

AM: It's a little silicone collapsy thing.

LG: Good thing it's not silicon, because there'd be a global shortage of the collapsible tea kettles.

AM: Right, right, right.

LG: This sounds really cool and I would be very tempted to buy it, mostly because I just think foldable and collapsible things sound cool and because they're aspirational. Maybe sometime this summer I will get out and sleep in the woods, Aarian, like you're doing. And so, just in case, I might need the collapsible tea kettle.

AM: Absolutely.

LG: Mike, what's your recommendation this week?

MC: Aarian, every time you come on the show, I end up with a recommendation that is thematically appropriate, and this time is no different, because I'm going to recommend a book, it's by David Byrne, frontman of Talking Heads and songwriter and performer of his own right. You might know him from David Byrne's American Utopia. He wrote a book about 10 or 12 years ago called Bicycle Diaries. I read it when it was new, and I was looking through my Kindle looking for something to read and I saw it and I started reading it a second time, and it is just as delightful, so I want to recommend it. David Byrne kept a blog, I think he still does keep a blog. He's just always producing stuff on the internet. He's always writing, he has a radio show, and this is sort of blog entries from the period of around the aughts, like mid 2000s to about 2008, 2009, where he was traveling around the world. He takes a folding bike with him and then unfolds it and rides around the city that he's in.

And he writes these beautiful diaries, not only about the cycling infrastructure in the city but about the architecture and the fashion and the food and the nightlife and all the crazy adventures he gets into. It's really delightful, and it's like one of the best travel books. David Byrne is also a very singular writer. He has a really efficient and economical writing style and a real dry wit, and it's just delightful and fun and breezy. So, if you like David Byrne, if you like bikes, and if you like travel writing, it's like right at the middle of that Venn diagram.

LG: This is the perfect recommendation for you. This is everything you're into, Mike.

MC: Yeah, sure, why not? It's also like a lot of things that a bunch of people are into, which is why I like recommending things like that. Also, we didn't really talk too much about bikes this episode, and I know that that's a big part of the cities and the way that people experience cities and it has grown exponentially over the pandemic. So, maybe there are people out there who weren't cyclists a couple of years ago, who now love it, and they also love David Byrne, and they didn't know this exists.

LG: We should do a whole other podcast about bikes. What do you think?

MC: I mean, sign me up.

LG: All right.

AM: Yeah.

MC: Or we could do a whole episode about what your recommendation is.

LG: I don't know if it would take up an entire episode, but my recommendation this week is the Lindberg Snider Porterhouse and Roast Seasoning.

MC: Grilled meats?

AM: That sounds great.

LG: Yeah. I didn't eat meat for, I don't know, five years maybe. I gave up meat, and then I went back to it last year. And so, I started cooking meat again, and I can't say that that was necessarily a pandemic hobby. It's not like I got really, really good at it or took it really seriously. I wasn't like, I couldn't make brisket, but I was cooking more meat than I had for several years prior and recently, it was at a friend's house, and she did a great job with meat, and I was like, "What are you using?" And she said, "Lindberg Snider Porterhouse and Roast Seasoning. It's been around forever. It's, I don't know, it's not expensive, it's $11 for 14 ounces, and it's just, it's great for barbecuing, you don't necessarily have to just put it on beef or poultry or seafood, you can put it on vegetables as well. It's this nice combination of different herbs and spices and I really like it. So yeah, I recommend just having it in your pantry as a staple, it'll probably last forever.

MC: Does it work on veggies?

LG: It does work on veggies. Yeah, it works quite well on veggies.

AM: Tofu steaks.

LG: Yeah, tofu steaks, asparagus. It's got salt, garlic, onion, black pepper, oregano, paprika, parsley, celery, rosemary, and then just for good measure, silicon dioxide. This is very much like a silicon theme show. Let's hope there's not a global shortage of porterhouse seasoning because it has a silicon dioxide in it, but that's just, that's an anti-caking agent. Anyway.

MC: So am I.

LG: That's my recommendation this week.

MC: Very nice. That's a good rub.

LG: And therein lies the rub. OK, that is our show. Thank you again, Aarian, for joining us.

AM: Thank you for having me, per usual. It's so lovely to be here.

LG: Hopefully, we'll be able to fly or take trains and see each other all in person again very soon.

AM: Yes, please.

LG: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in to Gadget Lab. If you have feedback, we really do love hearing it. You could find all of us on Twitter. We'll put our Twitter handles in the show notes. You can also email us. Our DMS are open. We just, yeah, we'd love to hear from you. This show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. We'll be back next week and until then, stay well, stay healthy … and don't be assholes to your Lyft or Uber drivers.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music plays]

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