In Motion: The Experience of Travel

Can we redesign the commute?

On the Metro North, New York Metropolitan Region. [Photo by bitchcakesny, via Flickr]

In his latest book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, Tony Hiss poses a provocative challenge: Can we rethink the value we put on all the accumulated years of our lives we spend in transit, all the “wasted” time spent in-between the places we live and work and visit? As he did in his ground-breaking The Experience of Place, published two decades ago, Hiss weaves a strong web of personal narrative, literary reference and human-awareness research, all in the service of the modest goal of changing the world. To get us going, he wants us look afresh at the hours we spend in motion, whether on a daily car commute, transcontinental flight, or adrift, wet and supine, on the “lazy river” behind the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He posits that in these experiences there is, or could be, a special type of awareness — neither concentration nor daydreaming, fight nor flight — that is richly human, indeed at the core of our evolutionary identity as walking, watchful beings.

Hiss calls such experience “deep travel,” and he prods us to recollect memorable travel experiences — the kind of train rides, for instance, when to our surprise we find ourselves open to the wonder of the racing suburban landscape, a sensation especially intense during, say, the first 48 hours in a new country, when every sight and sound is distinct information, impressed onto a mind alert for risk and opportunity. It’s an evocative premise, hard to read without thinking, as with his earlier book: Of course, why hasn’t this been written about before? Hiss is a great synthesizer, and he’s not shy of poetry, whether quoting the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, or describing his own deep travel as resembling “sunlight after rain — details stand out,” and moonlight, too, because it “changes your sense of what has become possible and of what might happen next.”

Top: At Bank Station, London Tube. [Photo by Mark Hillary, via Flickr] Bottom: On the London Tube. [Photo by Pedro Figueiredo, via Flickr]

Not the usual starting point for transportation planners. In planning circles, some officials talk about more transit or smarter highways or bigger airports; everybody talks about shorter commutes. Yet wherever they fall on what we now call the “sustainability” continuum, most planners, as Hiss underscores, hold on to the highly instrumentalist, technocratic thinking that prioritizes the getting-from-here-to-there, with little regard for the experiencing-on-the-way. Car manufacturers, of course, want us to fetishize the vehicle, promoting fantasies of power, agility and status: With the right car or truck or car-truck combo, you won’t be a commuter — you’ll be a savvy, sexy thrill-seeker. Hiss is keenly aware that the fantasy rarely feels true; most of the time you really are just a commuter, and if you’re unlucky, you’ll be on a roadway both stressful and dull, where it’s the distractions, from relatively benign radio to dangerous texting, that make it bearable. This is, in Hiss’s description, “already-there travel,” an inconvenient intermission from “real” life. Travel that is unvalued; hence his exploration of how we might make this experience more.

Hiss works hard to tell us what this “more” might be. He wants us to reconnect to our “ability to wake up while we are already awake,” one of his key definitions of deep travel. As in The Experience of Place, he is fascinated with our still limited yet lately growing “awareness of awareness.” At times, in pursuit of heightened consciousness, he walk us up the self-help aisle; and clearly it can’t be helped because Hiss is catholic in his reading, ruminating and interviewing. In search of deep travel, he’ll trek from the English physicist Henri Bortoft, who points out that Galileo “separated the motion of a body from the essential nature of the body,” to Canadian radio producer Jeff Warren, whose The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness, explores “the presentness of possibilities” that come with “alert mindfulness.” For Hiss, such meditations get us close to an understanding of deep travel, in which motion is wrapped up in our “personhood.” Thus In Motion incorporates strains of religion east and west, the self-actualization movement, and metaphysics too, even more when Hiss argues that “wonder” is the perhaps the greatest gift offered by this type of consciousness, no matter whether you are hiking the Grand Canyon or ambling along 8th Street in Greenwich Village. Hiss is trying to change the way we think, or more precisely, to reconnect us to a way of thinking that’s become elusive.

Taoyuan City, Taiwan. [Photo by Tinou Bao, via Flickr]

Hiss argues that this “ability to wake up while already awake” fits into not just a scheme of personal experience but also into a larger environmental perspective. Perhaps the most eloquent sections of the book explore what Hiss calls the “longer nows” that deep travel affords, which are not just about achieving a richer, more complex and open-minded life in the moment, but also about developing a profoundly intergenerational sense of time. He writes movingly about how he’s come to see himself as part of the 400 generations of humans to inhabit the Hudson River estuary in the millennia since the ice age, and about how he’s also experienced that connection to a longer now through both study and direct experience; wandering through New Jersey’s vast, quiet Dismal Swamp, for instance, Hiss feels an “overwhelming sense of still the same.” Hiss tempers this admission, acknowledging that of course, much else isn’t the same at all. Yet his point remains strong — that we need to use the tools we have, our different types of awareness, to grasp our place in a span of thousands if not millions of years.

In Motion is fundamentally about a certain kind of stillness in the midst of motion, an awareness that the moment is connected to the world, to history and place, to ourselves and a larger community. Yet this question of larger community underscores the feeling of loneliness that starts to pervade this ambitious narrative, and that is never quite reckoned with — but which matters when we start to think about how Hiss’s perceptions could translate into or inform design and planning decisions. Hiss relies often on the literature of the solitary traveler and the scientific studies of the tested individual, and on his own experience and writerly perception. And it’s true that much of our travel today is solitary; there’s every reason to fight for this time to feel meaningful, not useless. Yet there is another vital question. What if our travel were not solitary but instead social? What if we were likely as not to be in a carpool, on a commuter train, always part of a group, always in a social situation? Less like Thoreau and more like Canterbury Tales, full of interaction, of shared stories and games? Could that kind of social travel be meaningful for the 401st generation? Is gregariousness potentially the most powerful tool to connect us to a greater sense of mission and meaning?

On the A40, near Oxford. [Photo by Garrett Coakley, via Flickr]

So what could In Motion mean for design and planning? Hiss writes intriguingly about the Millau Viaduct in southern France, the cable-stayed bridge designed by the Foster + Partners with French engineer Michel Virlogeux. The marvelous structure is a riveting image from afar, he notes, and yet apparently it can be a frustrating experience for motorists — you’ve got no view from your car. Hiss wonders how such projects might better recognize the experience of the driver, opening up and enriching the opportunity for deep travel. Hiss saves the policy implications section for his last pages, looking at how the “physical components of trips” could be updated to intensify the awareness of travelers. He briefly looks back to the 1880s “Railway Beautiful” project of Frederick Law Olmsted and H.H. Richardson. And while Hiss does cite the importance of early 20th-century parkways as a model, noting even his own recent campaign for “parkwaying” rail lines around New York City, it would have been valuable had he offered a more detailed account of the experiential intentions of 20th-century highway designers; certainly the provision of “scenic vistas,” from the Autobahn to the pages of Arizona Highways, suggests that the attitudes of highway planners to existing communities and natural landscapes were deeply ambiguous.

Similarly, while Hiss offers a clear perspective on inter-city rail — especially in his review of Amtrak’s high-speed Acela, he registers the contrast between the precise attention to detail inside the traincars and the scrappy, unmanaged landscapes of the rail corridor — it would be useful to hear also about the design of the shorter commute, and where it might belong on the continuum of deep travel. In cities like Portland, where recent public transportation has been designed with strong regard for the user’s experience, from ticketing, to getting on and off, to the ride itself, what’s been the result? Are riders more or less connected to the world around them? In Motion would benefit from more reporting on the hows of recent design, even while reinforcing Hiss’s thesis that the essential issue is to build a strong argument for why the trip itself is important.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a latter-day call for “beautification,” like Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to plant flowers along the Interstates, especially in a time of meager public budgets and rising energy prices. Yet if we don’t take seriously this issue of the time we spend in motion, Hiss says, “we are starving ourselves, letting ourselves down.” There may be more vexing and urgent problems, but the realities and opportunities of contemporary travel, and its design and planning, cut across classes and continents. In a world where our daily rounds grow longer and duller — and often as not through the failures of narrowly defined planning — In Motion is timely and valuable.

Ray Gastil, “In Motion: The Experience of Travel,” Places Journal, April 2011. Accessed 27 Sep 2021.

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Past Discussions View
  • jean bouffard

    04.07.2011 at 20:01

    Wow, les images sont d'une qualitée incroyable...

  • Amir

    04.11.2011 at 14:45

    I was very impressed about the whole text but something hurts me so much. Rumi is not an Afghan poet. These things are not important at all but these days there is a different wave which has not beautiful purposes!

  • Nancy Levinson

    04.11.2011 at 16:33


    Thank you for your comment. We appreciate your noting this, and we'll make the correction.

  • Amir

    04.12.2011 at 14:11

    Thank you !

  • C. Tate

    04.18.2011 at 16:45

    Remember when air travel was a classy thing? When one would dress up for the ride? Okay, so it was inaccessible and rare. But still. Can we really talk about the quality of travel's experience when jogging pants and flip flops are part of the picture? Maybe? Maybe not.

  • Andy

    06.03.2011 at 07:58

    It says "the Persian poet, Rumi", not "Afghan poet". Persian is correct.