Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Musing on the Future of Travel

I’m supposed to be in Spain right now. Many months ago, in a world that looked so different from today’s world, I registered for a one-week travel writing class. I was looking forward to enjoying tapas and wine while learning about sustainable agriculture and writing engaging prose.
A town in Spain

Because of the carbon footprint of a flight from Seattle, I had expanded my trip plans to include travel within Europe. My husband and I would vacation on a river cruise the week prior to the writing course, and then I would take the train to Spain. I had been wanting to visit London for several years, and the scheduled sustainable business conference in that city the week afterward looked like a serendipitous coincidence.

Yesterday I wrote an email to someone I was supposed to be meeting in London next week saying perhaps we will see each other next year. But will we? Part of me would like to but I question whether it is necessary or wise. I can talk to anyone anywhere around the world by phone or videoconference so long as I schedule it with time zones in mind.

Tomorrow I’m taking part in an event called the Worldwide SemiSister Social Hour. Since it is at 8 am my time, I’ll be drinking coffee, but the European cohort may choose to make it a cocktail hour. This is a group of women who work in the male-dominated semiconductor industry as executives, engineers, or in sales and marketing. Until recently, the SemiSisters gathered in person at industry conferences. I rarely traveled to those events. But since the social hour is virtual, I can join in.

I believe that the current pandemic will forever change the nature of travel, whether local or international. Millions of knowledge workers—people who write software, publish articles, or design marketing plans—are working from home, and their employers have realized that they can do so effectively. Commuting to an office, which is now forbidden for work not deemed essential, will eventually be allowed again. But will workers flock back? I don’t know.

Yes, I feel isolated at my home office. But co-working has lost some of its appeal. It no longer seems worth the risk or expense. I don’t want to be in an indoor space with people other than my immediate family members all day long. Even if they space out the desks, we are breathing the same air.

Long-distance travel, something of a privilege if not a luxury, will require rethinking. The idea of getting on an airplane now is frightening, not because I’m worried that the plane might crash but because my fellow passengers might be carrying the deadly virus. When Delta Airlines canceled my flight to Europe, they credited my account with the full price of my ticket. I have until 2022 to use the credits, which I appreciate because I have no intention of buying a flight any time soon even though Delta is resuming a modified schedule in June.

Less plane travel carries an environmental benefit. While improving fuel efficiency reduces carbon emissions to a certain extent and switching to alternative fuels promises greater reductions, the lowest emissions are from a plane that never leaves the ground. I don’t believe that the airline industry will disappear, but travel volume will be down for a long time. Passenger screening and facility sanitation procedures will likely change forever.

I worry about the future of public transit, something I have long supported. Like plane travel, it doesn’t feel safe right now. In December 2018, I committed to two sustainability-related goals in 2019, one of which was to take the bus to work at least once a week. Now avoiding the commute altogether looks like a better way to reduce my carbon footprint. But not everyone can work from home, and not everyone has access to a car. Expanding public transit is still a good long-term goal.

For now, I try to look on the bright side. I didn’t get to travel to Europe this month, but I’ve made some forward progress on several projects that might have gotten delayed if I had been away for three weeks. I could attend all three days of the virtual Nonfiction Writers Conference last week. I’m well on my way toward publishing my next book by the end of the year. And for a place to be stuck, I can’t complain about the Pacific Northwest. Spring here is gorgeous.