You don't have to be a Star Trek fan to be borderline obsessed with the idea of teleportation. You just have to want to be somewhere you're not, instantly (and preferably with all your DNA molecules and vital organs intact). As a culture, we're so excited by the prospect of teleportation that we latch onto every bite of news that seems to be telling us there's a chance.
There isn't a chance. (Sorry.) But that's besides the point for the "teleportation test" co-developed by Georgia Tech transportation scholar Patricia Mokhtarian more than a decade ago. In 2001, Mokhtarian and collaborator Ilan Salomon conceived the test as a "whimsical but potentially useful" tool to understanding personal travel preferences:
[I]f you could snap your fingers or blink your eyes and instantaneously teleport yourself to the desired destination, would you do so?
The teleportation test breaks down like this: If you answer "yes," you see traveling as a way to reach your destination—a mean to an end. If you answer "no," you may well like the act of traveling itself: the smell of the road, the scenery of the train, the … wheels on the bus. And if you answer "maybe," you might not love the trip but still enjoy some of the tasks you can get done during it.
Since its first appearance, the teleportation test has been given in five separate research studies. The results may come as something of a surprise given how much people complain about their commutes and the horrors of traffic: a non-trivial share of respondents either said they didn't want to teleport to work, or initially said they did but later walked back that answer. What's become pretty clear to Mokhtarian is that the ideal commute is not always no commute.
"I really think for most people probably it's is an 'it depends' kind of answer—even for myself," she tells CityLab. "I deliberately try to have my classes outside of this building to force myself to get out and walk across campus. But if I'm in a hurry, wouldn't I rather teleport? I think for most of us it's context dependent but can be indicative of a general orientation toward travel."
Somewhere, Scotty is shaking his head. Let's beam up the findings anyway, via a recent paper in Transportation by Mokhtarian and Marie Russell of the University of Otago in New Zealand.
The Teleportation Test Results
Texas drivers. A 2005 study posed a Star Trek-related variant of the teleportation test to 43 drivers in Texas, complete with a Captain Kirk reference. ("If you could beam yourself up for all your trips, would you do it?") Most of the drivers said, yes, they would teleport if given the chance. But 10 participants answered no, leading the researchers to conclude that "for some people, there really is something about driving itself that they value."
U.K. drivers and transit riders. Six focus groups held across England, in large cities as well as rural areas, showed that most people responded positively to the teleportation test. But as the discussion continued, some people started to hedge their initial responses, with one person completely reversing course and coming out against teleportation. The researchers conclude in a 2008 paper:
Overall, the initial eulogising of teleportation changed into distinguishing between particular moments and parts of journeys that were a waste of time, or boring, or particularly arduous, and those parts of journeys where the experience of travelling was important or desirable.
New Zealand transit riders: Part I. When Russell gave the teleportation test to 48 bus and train riders in New Zealand, most initially said yes, they'd like to do it. But 10 said they didn't want to teleport, and a few of the positive responses seemed to shift their thinking a bit during the phone survey, calling their work trip pleasant down time. That was even the case for one man who commuted an hour and a half each way; via Russell's 2012 dissertation:
… that one-and-a-half hours in between [work and home] gives me time to wind down and it’s a good way to shut off work and get home with a different mindset, fresh…
New Zealand commuters. This study of New Zealanders asked 512 commuters (of all modes) if they'd use a "Star Trek-like teleporter to instantly travel from home to work." Some 79 percent said yes, please. But that leaves roughly one in five who declined the teleport option, and others seemed to lean this way, too, later in the survey. When asked about their ideal commute, only 3 percent of the entire sample said it was zero minutes.
New Zealand transit riders: Part II. As part of her dissertation research, Russell also surveyed whether 1,039 transit riders in Auckland and Wellington would prefer to teleport. She found that only 66 percent said yes, they would beam up to their destination given the option. That's an awful lot of public transit devotion.
Finding the Positives in Your Commute
What these findings (and her own previous research) suggest to Mokhtarian is that a decent share of people derive some "positive utility" out of traveling to work. Some of them might like the trip itself; these aren't just drivers, one bus-riding study respondent even said, "I enjoy going along in a vehicle with people." Some might enjoy getting to read or play games. Some might find the separation between home and office refreshing.
"It's a stereotype that everyone's commute is horrible," says Mokhtarian. "I grant you there's a sizable segment of society that's struck in traffic, so to speak, and finding it extremely onerous and certainly wants to cut back. But I think it's not as large a segment as we think it is—even though it's still large."
Much of the work points to a commuter sweet spot between 15 and 20 minutes each way. That's enough time to get something done, but not so much time that it's a burden. If your commute is 45 minutes, for instance, you might have an ideal trip of 15 minutes, but if you can't achieve this ideal, you might prefer to teleport over the existing situation.
Here's how Russell and Mokhtarian conclude their latest paper:
Acceptance of teleporting is not necessarily a proxy for an ideal travel time of zero, nor for seeing travel time as wasted.
In some ways, the teleportation test has produced as many questions as it has answers. A big one: If people do like to travel for its own sake, can that desire be channeled into active transport modes that maintain urban sustainability? And is it fully possible to disentangle the utility of travel from the enjoyment we might derive? After all, just because you have to go to work every morning doesn't mean the commute trip isn't fulfilling some basic need to move for movement's sake.
"It comes back, in a way, to teleportation," she says. "Starting from the standpoint of: Would you want to never ever travel again by any mode—never step foot out of your house, basically? I think almost everybody would say 'no' to that."