Author Leo Tolstoy once wrote: “All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Both of these archetypal stories involve travel, a subtle connection which may speak to an intrinsic link between travel and the significant experiences that bring meaning to our lives. Yet as Georgia Tech professor Patricia Mokhtarian pointed out in a masterful 8th Annual Martin Wachs lecture, the view of travel among transportation officials in early 21st century has come to feel largely negative.

Speaking at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs this past Thursday, Mokhtarian lamented that travel is now viewed primarily as a “derived demand,” which means travel occurs only so that people can enjoy the goods and experiences attained at their destination but not because the journey in and of itself brings enjoyment.  Mokhtarian made clear from the beginning that her aim was to restore balance to how we conceive of travel by placing travel into the category of behaviors that have a dual nature: those that have on the one hand a utilitarian (functional) aspect, yet also bring a hedonic (pleasing) dimension. Travel in this positive sense can be viewed as similar to the act of eating: just as eating food can bring with it a pleasure that has little to do with nutritional sustenance, travel can bring a positive feeling unrelated to one’s ultimate destination.

After playfully looking at a possible connection between travel and the turn-of-the-20th century “art nouveau” movement, Mokhtarian surveyed existing research on the positive (or “autotelic”) elements of travel. Research here is far from conclusive, but surveys from San Francisco to Paris show that though they may be in the minority, many people do travel for its own sake. Perhaps more tellingly, in studies that gave respondents the option of snapping their fingers to instantly teleport themselves to work, researchers found that a consistent range of 20-35% of people would prefer to continue traveling through the physical environment.

The talk highlighted a series of complex questions: How do we balance the personal benefits of travel against the inevitable societal costs? Can we incorporate the positive utility of travel (PUT) into conventional regional Transportation Demand Forecasting (TDF) models? How will disruptive technologies such as driverless cars, drones, or even personal aircraft play a role in PUT?

Mokhtarian culminated her lecture on an emphatic and slightly ominous note: if travel is a core human need, then the prospect of a resource-constrained future that limits the ability of people to travel would be an unambiguously negative development.

Such an outcome is far from certain, especially given the rise of alternative fuel-sources and advances in transportation policy and technologies. But if in the coming years people limit their journeys and fewer strangers come to town, it’s hard not to agree with Dr. Mokhtarian (and Tolstoy) that we will have lost a vital source of personal fulfillment.

Video of Professor Mokhtarian’s full lecture, entitled “What Good Is it? Reflections on the Utility of Travel in a Resource-Constrained Era,” will be placed online in the near future.