These Infographics Show ‘The Way to Go’
When it comes to explaining how modern transportation infrastructure works, Kate Ascher prefers to show, not tell.
Ever wonder how the postcards you drop in the mailbox get delivered? Or what happens after you flush the toilet on a skyscraper’s tippy top floor? Author Kate Ascher tackles those questions and more in her series of illustrated “how things work” books. You can think of volumes like The Works: Anatomy of a City and The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper as picture books for adults: Meticulous infographics take us down New York City manholes and into the mechanical rooms of the world’s tallest buildings, drawing our attention to the feats of infrastructure and engineering all around us.
Ascher’s latest book, The Way to Go: Moving By Sea, Land, and Air, does for transportation what her first two books did for the modern metropolis. (The Way to Go was released in March.) Ascher says her graphic design collaborator George Kokkinidis had long lobbied for a transportation book, but it took a moment of inspiration at New York’s JFK airport to get her wheels turning. While waiting for her plane to take off, Ascher—who is principal of the urban planning firm Happold Consulting and a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation—was stumped. What did all those blinking lights, dashed lines, numbers, and arrows out on the tarmac mean? “It was actually sitting on the runway that made me realize that there are things that go on that I don’t know about, and [writing a book] would offer me the opportunity to get answers,” Ascher says.
As in The Works and The Heights, The Way to Go story-tells primarily through annotated pictures. Below are some of our favorites, which highlight just a few of the systems that help globetrotters get from point A to point B.
The Ways We Went
Ascher says her favorite graphics in the book are on the first few pages, which track the evolution of transportation vehicles over the last two centuries. The fun of Ascher’s vehicular timeline, which begins with the stagecoach and ends with Google’s self-driving car, is that it’s sized to-scale, making for some striking juxtapositions. Consider the relatively puny SS Ideal X T-2 tanker from the 1950s alongside the “Post Panamax ship” (introduced in 1988)—so-called because it’s too massive to fit through the Panama Canal. (The ship’s girth spans most of the bottom of a page.) As Ascher’s timeline illustrates, “progress” in transportation could be seen as building something bigger and faster than whatever came before. But she says that paradigm could be changing. “Now some of the coolest vehicles are neither large nor fast—they’re automated,” she says, citing the Google car and drones as examples.
Inside the “Brain” of a Google Car
In 1939, General Motors gave World’s Fair attendees a peek into the future of transportation with “Futurama,” an exhibit that promised self-driving, “autonomous cars” by the year 1960. More than half a century behind schedule, driverless car prototypes have finally hit the road. The most famous of today’s test models is perhaps the Google car, which operates using a combination of preexisting location information and real-time data. Ascher explains that Google’s car emits radar signals from each of its four sides, allowing the vehicle to sense obstacles. (The radar signal looks like concentric orange circles in the diagram.) A unit installed on the car’s roof continuously shoots out 64 laser beams, allowing the vehicle to create a 3D map of its surroundings. A camera near the rearview mirror spots upcoming traffic lights. And at four-way stops, the car does what you or I might do: In an automated game of “chicken,” it inches forward, and if no other car calls its bluff, it drives through.
Bigger Ships But Smaller Crews
Even as cargo ship sizes have ballooned—remember that Post Panamax ship too big to fit through the Panama Canal?—crew numbers on such vessels have declined. Today, improvements such as containerization and more reliable, self-checking engines mean there’s less of a need for human labor than for the technical know-how to monitor the work of a few machines, according to Ascher. The Emma Maersk, one of the world’s largest container ships, is a case in point. Thanks to automation and mechanization, Ascher reports, it can transport 11,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo with just 13 people.
Of course, human cargo is a bit more high maintenance. Until robots can cook and serve all-you-can-eat midnight buffets, cruise ships will still require massive crews to serve their thousands of passengers. In fact, since the days of the Titanic, the passenger-to-crew ratio on luxury passenger ships has remained roughly constant, Ascher writes. The Titanic served 1,300 passengers with 890 crew members. Today, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Sea serves 5,400 passengers with more than 2,000 crew members.
In the Cockpit
Peel back the instrument panel on your average jumbo jet and you’ll find some surprisingly basic instruments still in use. The pilot’s “turn coordinator,” (located at the bottom left of the panel) indicates the rate of turn with respect to a plane’s bank and yaw (rotation around the vertical axis) with the help of a little ball floating in fluid, known as an “inclinometer.” The “attitude indicator” (top and center) uses a gyroscope to inform the pilot about the plane’s pitch, or up or down tilt, and bank. Sometimes, Ascher says, fundamental tools like these don’t need improvement: “The basic technology is the basic technology.” That’s not to say cockpits haven’t undergone technical updates over the years. For instance, many commercial planes have adopted the “heads-up” displays originally developed for military aircraft, and instead of carrying heavy flight logs (containing information about the plane and its route), many of today’s pilots opt for an iPad.
No Waste in Space
Over three books, Ascher has tackled human waste disposal in cities, skyscfrapers, airplanes, and submarines. But space, covered in The Way to Go, is a “totally different” scenario, she says. For astronauts spending months on the International Space Station, urine is a valuable commodity. On the ISS, water is separated from urine using vacuum distillation. (Don’t worry: That water wends through a high-temperature catalytic reactor that removes organic contaminants and microorgahisms before it runs into the astronauts’ morning coffee.) Water reclamation is just one component of the ISS’s elaborate water-and-air generation system, which Ascher calls “one of the lesser-known wonders of space travel.” Some reclaimed water is also routed to an “oxygen generation assembly.” There, electrolysis breaks up H20 molecules into oxygen (which the astronauts breathe) and hydrogen (which is vented overboard).