Crow Flights

We’d like to think that airplanes have given us the capacity for crow flights, that because we can take a plane from one place to another we can travel “as the crow flies” and go directly from points A to B.

It’s tempting to think that we understand distance as directly as birds do, but our thoughts on distance are wrapped up in time and get caught on all kinds of mental thresholds that make it difficult to really think in terms of crow flights.

Because crows fly. They don’t take buses or walk or bike or skateboard or catch the M train. We, on the other hand, have lots of different ways of traveling, and thus when we think about distances we automatically and simultaneously think of how we’re traversing those distances.

We never wonder how long it would take to get from Harlem to Brighton Beach by plane, because that’s a distance we’d never fly. We can think of the trip in terms of trains, buses, and maybe biking, but we also wouldn’t think of it in terms of walking, because it’s a distance we’d never walk.

As the crow flies, 125th and 5th in Harlem and the boardwalk at Brighton Beach are only a handful of miles apart. But what does that mean? It basically means nothing because there is no opportunity for us to move between those places and cover that distance as the crow flies. Driving might feel more ‘direct’ than sitting on a local train that will stop 50 times, but the roads available are not particularly direct, and traffic jams and merges and stoplights make it feel even less so.

We rarely pull out a map (we really rarely take out a paper map, but it’s also pretty rare that we’ll pull up a map on our phones) and look at how far places actually are from one another. We don’t do it much because it’s usually not relevant information. It doesn’t really matter how many miles Harlem is from Brighton, what matters is how long it takes us to get there, because that’s the practical information that makes a difference in our lives.

A Peace Corp volunteer in Panama spent a week traveling around the country with his girlfriend who came to visit. He dropped her at the airport in Panama City for her flight back to Phoenix, then he got a cab from the airport to the bus terminal, took a bus from Panama City to San Feliz and then another bus from San Felix to the entrance to the indigenous reserve in Tole, and then walked to the Peace Corp ‘hub’ house where he would spend the night, because it is physically impossible for him to make it from Panama City to his site in available daylight hours.

As the crow flies, Panama City Tocumen Airport to Tole is not that far (maybe 120 miles) but to get from one to the other you have to take at least 3 separate vehicles and likely wait between each one. And the road from San Felix to Tole is slow, windy going. When the volunteer got to the house in Tole he had an email from his girlfriend, sent several hours earlier from her house in Phoenix.

Panama City to Phoenix is much farther as the crow flies, but her direct flight and then direct highway drive to her house took less time than a voyage through Panamanian public transit.

Diablo Rojo, endangered species of Panamanian public transit.
Diablo Rojo, endangered species of Panamanian public transit.


Future of Panamanian public transit
Future of Panamanian public transit

Because we can travel by so many different modes, the time we’re traveling is relevant, but the distance really isn’t. 300 miles can take 30 minutes or 3 days. But 3 hours will always take 3 hours.

People who live in cities often experience the strange realities around time and distance. It can take an hour to drive 50 miles from Nassau into Manhattan, and then another hour to go 10 blocks. It can take 10 minutes to go 100 blocks on the express train, or 10 minutes to walk 3 long blocks where no buses or subways run.

Our conceptions of distances also have to do with those mental thresholds, and things can seem farther away than they actually are- in terms of time or distance- because of how we think about them. Mental commutes are just as important as physical ones.

Thinking about where coffee comes from seems like a massive mental- as well as physical- commute. Coffee is something tropical, mysterious, exotic, and thus from Elsewhere, whereas a tomato is something we can grow in our own gardens and comes from vine and doesn’t seem to accrue many mental miles. But if you live in New York, a lot of your tomatoes may come from southern California or Mexico. And a good portion of your Starbucks coffee comes from Costa Rica and a lot of your Folger’s from Colombia. So which comes from farther away- California tomatoes or Latin American coffee? I thought the answer was obvious; Latin coffee makes the longer trek.

But it actually doesn’t. In terms of crow flights, Colombian coffee leaving from the port of Cartagena headed for the port of NJ is physically closer than tomatoes leaving from San Diego headed for Manhattan. But coffee travels by sea and tomatoes by truck. And the tomatoes didn’t have to get hauled down from 3 different mountain ranges before being packaged for transit. So which has the “longer” trip?

From Cali to New York can be under 4 days by truck, but from Colombia to Jersey by boat is always at least 5. Colombian coffee mountains might actually be closer to New York than Mexi-Cali borderlands tomato fields, but coffee probably almost always does make the longer (time) trek.

Even with all the rigmarole around getting to, through, and from airports, flying in planes does get us pretty close to crow flights, if never all the way there. For example, a direct flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City, Panama or Cartagena, Colombia to JFK all take 5 hours. The real, tangible travel time to these “far off” places is significantly shorter than the travel time from JFK to LAX or Seattle.

And Seattle does not seem exotic. Neither does LA. The prospect of traveling there doesn’t seem particularly dramatic or even like that much of an undertaking. Because they’re part of the same country as New York and they use the dollar, speak English, and have lots of the same stores, they aren’t mentally challenging places to go to, even if they involve longer and farther flights than those to Latin America.

These mental thresholds tripping up our conceptions of distance are often built around cultural thresholds. Somewhere in the air en route to one of those “far off” Latin American destinations you have to cross a cultural threshold, because when you get off the plane things are just different. And that difference isn’t necessarily a product of distance-in-miles or distance-in-hours, but rather a product of distance-in-habits and distance-in-norms.

When you get off the plane in Seattle you don’t have to change currency and language and adjust to a stranger greeting you with a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. When you get off the plane in Cartegena, Colombia you’ll have to do all that while watching a woman flip corn cakes on an outdoor grill, with street dogs lurking at her feet. It doesn’t matter that this location is closer to New York in crow flights, in ways that matter it is farther than Seattle could ever be.

But maybe it does matter a little bit that it’s closer. Because when we think of someplace as “far away” we then tend to think of it as inaccessible and foreign and unconnected to us and our lives. When we know something is right on top of us we start to think about it because we have to. We might have nothing in common with our neighbors, but we share the same space so all of the sudden we do have something in common, even if that commonality only realizes itself as “we both have to deal with each other.”

Proximity all of the sudden makes us have to deal with things that otherwise we don’t. (Oh, there’s a garbage strike. What are we doing to do with this trash that we don’t normally have to think about after we set it on the curb, neatly twist-tied?)

Coffee is closer than we think. Political and cultural borders may win in terms of their power to influence our daily lives, but Costa Rica will always be closer to New York than Los Angeles. That’s a reality that simply won’t change. If places are closer than we’ve given them credit for being, and we have this cool almost-crow-flight mode of transit that lets us get closer to experiencing distance in terms of miles rather than hours, what does that mean for our habits and norms?

I think it means that things that have been physically close but mentally distant can start becoming mentally closer. Now that we can travel and translate and tune in to things that really are on the other side of the world, we can also start integrating those falsely far away places into our regular thinking. If you live in Philly, Cuba is closer than the Colorado. Think about that.

Realizing that someplace that’s difficult to think about is actually closer than someplace that’s easy to think about might be the first step in making that difficult place easier to think about.

Coffee is physically not that far away. Some of it does come from Kenya and Vietnam, but a lot of it also comes from Mexico and Honduras and Colombia, which really aren’t that far from New York. People take weekend trips from Midtown to Beverly Hills all the time, so why not take a weekend trip from Midtown to Nicaragua? Or Guatemala? Or El Salvador? Your reason not to might be that those places require all the thresholds of change in language/currency/customs (and maybe security), but your reason not to can’t be “because they’re far away.

There is potential in discovering how physically close mentally far off places actually are, but I don’t think there is anything to gain from pushing close places farther away by adding obstructive thresholds to our mental commutes.


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