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Why is travel so hard and what could make it better?

(CNN) — I haven’t been on vacation in 10 years. Admittedly, part of the reason is that I’m a workaholic. The other part is that I hate flying. I despise the lines, the cramped seats, the security – it all feels like a huge waste of time.

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

But then I read a statistic that blew my mind. Despite all the non-stop media coverage of air travel, pre-pandemic polls showed that the majority of Americans don’t fly every year. Fewer people fly now.

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

I decided to explore solutions in the latest episode of my podcast, Margins of Error.
I started by watching us get on a plane. We spend so much time on it. Most airlines use so-called blockboarding, which means that you board from the front to the back or from the back to the front. There is also the window, middle, aisle method. Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, reportedly has the fastest boarding process of any major airline, allowing passengers 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 developed a model that takes into account how and where we stow our luggage when we find a seat.

“You want adjacent passengers in the row to spread their seat assignments throughout the plane so that if one person stops in their turn, the next person behind them can stop in their turn,” 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 at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport this month.

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

David Zalubowski/AP

Why don’t we just start with the Steffen method? It requires strict quality control. Steffen also said airlines have so many priority boarding groups based on status that it disrupts his model.

Maybe one day the airlines will change.

And maybe planes aren’t your thing. Do you want to drive outside and enjoy the landscape?

Then there is also a statistical model for you here.

I spoke to 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 places you want to visit because you really want to see the United States. “There are three times 10 out of 64 ways to arrange those 50 goals,” Olson told me. “If you tried to let your computer find the optimal route by trying each one, it would take about 9.64 times 10 to the power of 52 years.

That’s a lot of time – more than I can put in here – and not really useful.

The key is using randomness and route optimization, Olson told me, which means swapping two of the targets and measuring the new ride. “Is it shorter? If so, keep it, if not, throw it away and keep trying, trying, trying,” he said. “On my MacBook, it only takes a few minutes to find the best route.”

If you really flashed through the whole ultimate road trip, you could probably KO it in a couple of weeks. However, Olson recommends giving him a month or two to see the sights.

Here’s a leg of the journey: you’ll head north from the Grand Canyon, through Utah and Idaho, before reaching Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. Then lurch back south, through Colorado and New Mexico, until you reach the Alamo, Texas.

Fuel costs are a factor when driving on the road. Here, traffic backs up along Interstate 395 in Washington, DC in June

Fuel costs are a factor when driving on the road. Here, traffic backs up along Interstate 395 in Washington, DC in June

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Driving is of course all well and good. But what about fuel costs? Not to mention the environmental impact that also plagues airplanes.

Part of the answer to these questions may end in… 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 the potential of seaweed as a fuel.

Kelp is “one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet,” Kim said. “Under ideal conditions, we are talking about growth rates of over 1 foot per day. And so you can create a ton of biomass that you have to convert into bioenergy.”

The first results of kelp experiments are promising, although the use of kelp as a main energy source will not happen for a while. And even if we could use kelp, it’s only part of the solution.

Kelp “could account for about a third of our energy use in the United States,” Kim said. “They would need a lot of seaweed and take up a lot of space in the sea, but there’s a lot of space in the open sea. If you compare it to fossil fuels, I think it’s a much better alternative.”

If finding the ultimate way to travel is your thing, listen to this episode. You can find out what happened when we issued an appeal for bus travelers. It turns out they’re not easy to find.

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