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What we miss when we travel fast
photo 8: Italy by Train
The world has been rotating at the same speed for billions of years (here is how fast) but the people on the planet are moving faster and faster.
Mobility is obviously a human need. It expands income opportunities, lets us meet more friends, and enables us to experience many different environments.
Therefore large parts of the spirit of research have gone into improving mobility.
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Until the 19th century, the fastest means of transport were horses. Then came – in no time – trains, cars, planes.
With speed also distances have changed. In Britain, for example, travel distance per year and capita increased from 4,500 miles (7,242 km) in 1970 to more than 7000 miles (11,265 km) in 2000.
I, too, travelled in the past weeks. Relatively slow by today's standards.
Through Italy by train. Mostly with regional or night trains. From Venice down the Adriatic coast, through Abruzzo to Rome, via Naples to Sicily, and later back up to Bologna and back to Berlin.
It was a vacation that focused on travelling, not the arrival. And it was a vacation that allowed me to experience two economic insights close up.
First, every means of transport has its opportunity costs.
Economists love to think in terms of opportunity costs which is the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.
When buying ice cream, for example, the opportunity cost consists of those ice cream flavours that you didn't buy (for the same money).
So the idea of opportunity costs makes us aware that everything we do has a price. Because what we do prevents us from doing something else.
Those who rode a horse missed the experience of reaching their destination on foot. Who took the steam engine did not experience the adventures of carriage rides. And anyone who goes on holiday by plane misses beautiful views and numerous encounters on train journeys.
As you may notice by now, this is going to be an advertising text for train travel. About the beauty of approaching a place by watching the approach. About anticipation that can only arise if there is time and freedom to think about it. And about the calm that can set in when you look out the window at a constantly changing scenery, but somehow everything stays the same.
From my point of view, the opportunity costs of flying-on-vacation-by-plan are pretty high. But of course, opportunity costs are a very individual matter. There are no better or worse means of transport; there are only differences.
This brings me to my second vacation-related economic insight: Fast travel used to be a privilege, now slow travel is. Firstly, because when it comes to long-distance travel, all alternatives to the fastest means of transport, the plane, are more expensive. Also, because slow travel takes time, time in which travellers do not earn any money.
Luckily, since the industrial revolution, people have splitted productivity gains for more income AND more free time. The fact that I was recently able to travel through Italy for well over two weeks is the result of this division. In the past, someone like me, with an average income, could not only not afford such a trip but also wouldn't have the time for it. Nowadays, many people have time and money. If we all travel consciously, we and others benefit most from it.
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