Celebrate Birthdays, not Holidays

To the transportation user, holidays are nothing but pain. Synchronized travel leads to traffic jams and very high rail and air fares, and synchronized shopping by car leads to parking pain. American commercial parking minimums are designed around the few busiest days of the year (source, endnote #8), timed for the Christmas rush. In France, synchronized travel at the beginning and end of school holidays is so bad that each region begins and ends its winter and spring breaks on different dates. There’s so much travel pain, and associated waste in designing transportation around it, that it’s worth asking why even bother.

The travel pain is even worse than mere congestion. When I visited London in early July, Eurostar broke in both directions. This was not a pair of random delays. French holiday travel is synchronized even though there are two months of summer break and only about one month of paid vacation net of the other holidays: traditionally people from all over the country and the world visit Paris in July, and then Parisians visit other places in August.

With slow boarding at the stations courtesy of security theater and manual ticket checks with just two access points per train, it takes longer than usual to board the trains when they are full. With full trains throughout the day, the delays cascaded, so by afternoon the trains were hours off schedule. Eurostar let passengers on trains on practically a first-come, first-served basis: people with tickets on a train got to ride the next available train. I had a ticket on an 11:39 train, and got to ride the train that was nominally the 11:13 (there were a few available seats) but departed at 12:58, and my nominally-11:39 train departed even later.

Eurostar’s inability to deal with crowds that occur annually, at a time when revenue is highest, is pure incompetence. But even if that particular problem is resolved, the more fundamental problem of unnecessary swings in travel volumes remains. On domestic TGVs it’s seen in wild price swings. Today is the 8th. In two weeks, a one-way TGV ticket from Paris to Marseille costs 72-74 on Thursday the 22nd or Friday the 23rd (Friday is the traditional peak weekend travel date and increasingly Thursday joins it) and about 62 on Saturday the 24th. But next month, on the 23rd, I see tickets for about 150, and even the low-comfort OuiGo option, which usually has 10 tickets (from the suburbs, not Paris proper), shoots up to 100; even with these prices, most trains are sold out already.

In some cultures, common holidays serve a religious or otherwise traditional purpose of bringing the extended family together. This is the case for Chinese New Year, which causes overcrowding on the mainline rail network at the beginning and end of the holiday as urban workers visit their families back home, often in faraway interior provinces. The same tradition of extended families occurs on Passover, but Israel has little travel pain, as it is so small that Seder travel is the same as any other afternoon rush hour.

However, there is no religious or social value to synchronized school holidays, nor is there such value to Western holidays. Western Christian civilization has centered nuclear families over extended families for around a millennium. In modern-day American culture, people seem to spend far more time complaining about the racist uncle than saying anything positive about catching up with relatives.

Christmas has religious significance, but much of the way it is celebrated in rich countries today is recent. The emphasis on shopping is not traditional, for one. The travel peak is probably unavoidable, since Christmas and New Year’s are at a perfect distance from each other for a week-long voyage, but everything else is avoidable. A source working for a bookstore in Florida, located strategically on the highway between Disneyland and the coast, told me of two prominent peaks. In the summer there would be a broad peak, consisting mostly of European tourists with their long paid vacations. But then there would be a much sharper peak for the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in which the store would fill every cashier stall and pressure employees, many of whom temps working seasonally, to work overtime and get customers through as quickly as possible.

Some holidays have political significance, such as various national days, but those do not have to create travel peaks or shopping peaks. Bastille Day doesn’t.

Finally, while it’s accepted in Western countries today that summer is the nicest season to travel, this was not always the case, and even today there are some exceptions. The Riviera’s peak season used to be winter, as the English rich fled England’s dreary winters to the beaches; Promenade des Anglais in Nice is named after 19th century winter vacationers. When I lived in Stockholm, I was more excited to visit the Riviera in the winter, fleeing 3 pm sunsets, than in the summer. Today, Japan has a peak for the cherry blossom in the spring, while in New England (and again in Japan) there is a tradition of leaf peeping in the fall.

Instead of centering synchronized holidays, it’s better for states to spread travel as well as shopping behavior throughout the year as much as possible. Different people have different preferences for seasonality, and this is fine.

For bigger shopping seasons, the best thing to do is to emphasize birthdays. Instead of trying to fix major holidays, the way Lincoln did for Thanksgiving, it’s better to encourage people to make their biggest trips and biggest shopping around birthdays, anniversaries, saint days in Catholic countries, and idiosyncratic or subculturally significant days (such as conventions for various kinds of geeks). There are already well-placed traditions of birthday and anniversary gifts. In academia it’s also normal to extend conference trips into longer vacations, when they don’t conflict with teaching schedules.

The impact on labor is reduced seasonality, and far less peak stress. With less seasonal employment, the natural rate of unemployment may also end up slightly lower. The impact on transportation is a large reduction in travel peaks, which would make it easier to run consistent scheduled service year-round, and to maintain car travel and parking capacity at its average day level rather than building parking lots that go unused 364 days out of every year.


  1. Korakys

    Nothing will change on this front until the Baby Boomers are all dead, the later generations are more flexible on this I reckon.

    • Michael James

      Ha, suck it up, kiddo. We are going to live forever, and in any case long before we shuffle off, we will be SKIing, Spending the Kids Inheritance:-)

  2. Michael James

    Good rant.
    I’ve said it many times, including on this site, that one way to relieve some of this is to run later trains. Both Eurostar and domestic TGVs have a very early last departure (often 1900h). Now, one can understand in principle why they don’t do it as a standard thing, because of cost of staff (drivers, conductors, station staff, central operational managers etc) and indeed availability of drivers or driver resistance, but you’d really think at these special peak times (plus every Friday, Sunday) they could schedule an extra hour or two of trains beyond the usual early close. I suppose too, with Eurostar they are worried later trains will simply parasitize pax from earlier ones and so, without raising extra revenue (in fact reducing revenue since late train tickets should be cheaper) and the extra operational cost, the beancounters will not be happy. So, the econocrats win and no later trains. For Eurostar they also have the option of using Stratford (and if need be, on the French side run them to CDG rather than Gare du Nord). But then airlines run planes right up to the last legal landing each airport/city before curfews kick in (usually to 0100h or later)–and indeed late-night flights are generally cheaper! Why are trains different?

    Of course Alon, you know another partial solution? Those wonderful duplex TGVs:-)

    Re “security theatre”, isn’t it more about passport control (not quite the same thing), because of the UK’s obsessions and it not being in Schengen? I’ve never experienced those delays you describe and being bumped to a different, later, train (which seems weird–are they running later trains just to handle those with tickets?) but then I always make sure to never travel at those ultra-peak times.I would often travel a day earlier and stay a day longer to avoid such awful travel times, but of course not everyone has the luxury of that kind of flexibility (OTOH, there are an awful lot of sheeples in this travel game). It seems a bit odd in that most Eurostar are pretty full so I can’t see why it would be different –do they actually run more trains per hour at these holiday periods?

    Re Parisian holiday effect, it’s actually in two waves, with about half beginning their hols in early July (retuning mid-Aug) or beginning late-July, early Aug (returning late Aug) so that the overlap period (late Jul-early-Aug) produces a deep lull in Paris, a long search to find an open boulangerie (which will have a queue and sometimes sell out early). So this already breaks up the rush by approx 2x. Way back when I first lived there, France had an active official campaign to persuade more French to swap some of their summer holiday time for a (shortish) winter break instead; I believe this partly worked.

    • Michael James

      Before you reply: Yes, I know that the ‘new’ Eurostar Siemens Velaro e320 trainsets carry up to 950. What I don’t understand is that if this is due to them being 300mm wider, and thus 2+3 seating, can these trains be accommodated on the regular French/Belge/German/Dutch HSR routes? I imagine the answer is that the Eurostar routes can fit the wider trains but most of France’s TGV lines cannot.

  3. Gallia

    As much as transit lovers would want to think so, the world doesn’t revolve around transit. (A lot of) people travel around the same time of year because they have kids and these are the school holidays. School holidays have to be around the same time (at least in the same country/city/region), so there’s not much to do about us. Also from a business (and environmental, actually) perspective it makes sense and is more efficient to have people taking time off around the same time rather than spreading their holidays throughout the year.
    To some extent this is just another instance of peak/off-peak travel – most people will travel around the same time (morning and pm rush hours) but some people won’t. We need a transport system that can accommodate that, not to accommodate ourselves to the transport system we have.

    • Michael James

      Also from a business (and environmental, actually) perspective it makes sense and is more efficient to have people taking time off around the same time rather than spreading their holidays throughout the year.

      I don’t know how you figure that. Ask a small business operator whether they would rather have the all-year round tourist market like in Paris, or the 4 to 6 months at best in the south or any provinces. For most places it comes down to weather which is only reliably of the type visitors want, for about 4 months. Only exceptional big cities with big attractions can break that cycle. As I wrote earlier the French government has had some success in getting more people to take (longer) winter breaks to spread it around the year more.
      It is of course the weather that determines school holidays. There have been many theoretical proposals to break this down, for example using a 3-month semester system that runs non-stop thru the year with students needing to attend 3 out of 4, or similar. Other than natural inertial resistance, it is really the weather that kills such schemes. (eg. whaddya gonna do with kids for weeks on end in winter or rainy weather? go insane, is what. there is “summer camp” for kids but no winter version for good reason).

      As for the environment, Alon’s piece describes how a transit system, including roads, is designed for its heaviest load, within economic constraints. For those hordes on holidays or the daily peak hour. The use of most commuter roads is terribly inefficient because they carry their peak load for only a few hours a day. Since the 60s/70s there have been attempts, partly successful, to spread that load over more of the day (flex-working hours, sometimes 4-day workweeks, etc).

      • Gallia

        I meant from the perspective of the employers of the people going on holiday, not the the tourist shops. If I am a factory, it’s more convenient for me that everyone takes their holidays between xmas and NYE and I can just shut down the factory for that week (that’s also the environment point, but I agree that there are too many factors to determine that). And generally it’s true for any organisation – it’s better to know nothing will happen b/w mid-December and mid-January (or July-September in France, or September in Israel) because everyone is on holiday, and then generally expect most people to be there for the rest of the time. (in Israel, for example, they often “pay” you with extra leave if you choose to take your leave around the holiday period, to incentivize people to take their holiday at the same time).

        Re school holidays – it doesn’t matter if you do it based on season or religious holiday or what not. The point is, there need to be holidays, and whenever you put them, all students will be on holiday at the same time (at least within a certain region) and then all families will go traveling on that time.

    • Alon Levy

      In the US at least the retail crunch is worse than the travel crunch. A store where one cashier in three or four is open at normal times will have all stalls open for a month out of every year, with long lines and intense pressure on the temps to move customers as fast as possible.

      It’s different here, and evidently they do stagger the February and April school holidays to avoid clogging all of the country’s roads on one day.

      For what it’s worth, in the 19th century, Lancashire mill towns coordinated so that each one would give workers a different summer week off, so that they could not all clog Blackpool and the railways at the same time.

  4. Oreg

    Every European I know spends Christmas with their immediate family (for some it’s Easter), just as Americans do on Thanksgiving. This has less and less to do with religion but is about spending time with each other. This only works with synchronized holidays.

    Staggered vacation periods are common not just in France but also in Germany (between the Länder) and Switzerland (between cantons, sometimes even more fine-grained).

    Isn’t the retail industry quite happy out the existence of holiday seasons?

  5. Brendan Dawe

    Thanksgiving holiday travel is the number one travel period of the year in US society.

    How on earth can you, a person who regularly uses numbers, claim that the relevant measure regarding the importance of visiting extended family is anecdotes about people’s unpleasant uncles?

    • Alon Levy

      My argument isn’t that people don’t travel; it’s that they travel and are unhappy about the social obligation to do so.

      • Dan

        My immediate family (parents and siblings) is in San Francisco, Athens, Washington DC, Hawaii, Malawi, and Los Angeles. I for one, relish the opportunity to get together once a year.

        The bottom line is that you can only arrange time off work at certain times. Business optempo requires my father, a VP of Operations, only take extensive time off when his subordinates have extensive time off. My brother is a military officer, and can take time off when his unit takes time off. My mother’s time off is planned around her software team’s operations which are incidentally carried out in India. My and my brother’s kids are expected to be in school at certain times.

        Bottom line is, you just can’t get every family all together whenever you want. If we celebrated birthdays, then each workplace and school would give days off at random times and we’d never all get together.

  6. adirondacker12800

    When I visited London in early July

    You could have gone in February when it’s less crowded. And cheaper. You should consider taking your own advice. To me, the weather in London is great in February. It rarely goes below freezing. Canadians would be running around in shorts.

    all over the country and the world visit Paris in July, and then Parisians visit other places in August.

    The tourists that didn’t get the memo that says they have to come in July arrive in August and find that, remarkably, that lodging is still available, food is being served and the tourist traps are still open. With electricity, water and telecom! When they dial 112, someone answers and if needed, someone responds. Few of them stay for a whole month and aren’t at all surprised to find the airport or train station is being staffed and there the trains or planes are still arriving and departing…. People who work at something that won’t be missed for a month take August off, other people not so much. The Parisians who do vacate for August, unless they have packed the car with a month’s worth of supplies for an extended camping trip where there are no services, might notice that there are people all around them, working. Apparently those kind of people are invisible to the kind of people who assert everyone goes on vacation in August. As invisible as the ones back at home, who don’t vacation in August, making sure the lights stay on, food gets delivered etc.

    Eurostar’s inability to deal with crowds that occur annually, at a time when revenue is highest, is pure incompetence.

    The free market sucks doesn’t it? They can ration the seats by price and make lots of money or ration the seats by first come first served and you wouldn’t have this pesky problem of being on a late train because it would have sold out well before you tried to book. Or more arcane ways like a lottery and you’d have to cope with not knowing if you have a reservation or not until the lottery that happens. There is a limit to how many trains they can run during a peak. It would cost too much to have equipment laying around doing nothing during the lulls. Those pesky pesky regulators have annoying regulations about how many hours a operator can work before they are required to rest so making them run trains many more hours during peak hours probably wouldn’t help much. Or you could have gone in February when there is less demand.

    Western Christian civilization has centered nuclear families over extended families for around a millennium. In modern-day American culture, people seem to spend far more time complaining about the racist uncle than saying anything positive about catching up with relatives

    Your uncle isn’t in your nuclear family. In one of your parent’s nuclear family but not your other parent’s nuclear family. Who is probably there because a grandparent insists. Or insisted in the past. Your grandparents aren’t in your nuclear family either. The trick is to go conspire with your cousin(s). Who aren’t part of your nuclear family.

    … leaf peeping…

    It’s about a month late this year, it’s thrown everybody’s schedule off. If you attempt to go view the color in any other season you’ll be disappointed. People who do come here for the color don’t expect to go swimming. The beaches closed in early September. It’s too cold to go swimming so it makes sense to close them. Except for crazy people on New Year’s Day, people who want to swim in the rivers or lakes or canoe on them or drift on a tube or… tend to come in summer. Asking them to do it in March wouldn’t be as attractive. Unless you figure out a way for the weather to always be the same, there’s gonna peaks and lulls. Around here nobody takes vacation in June, July, August or September. We are too busy extracting cash from tourist’s wallets. Are the people who work in resorts that invisible?

    • Alon Levy

      Eurostar’s problem is not that it’s expensive in the summer. It’s that because it runs as a flight level zero airline, if several trains in a row are full the queues get too long for security and ticket checks and then passengers take longer than scheduled to board. The domestic TGVs don’t have that problem.

      And yes, in the tourist traps, restaurants open in August. But in Nation, a lot of restaurants close for a month in August and some stores have shorter opening hours.

      • adirondacker12800

        There still isn’t anything stopping you from going to London in February. The domestic trains seem to have that pesky fare problem “On domestic TGVs it’s seen in wild price swings. … ” April in Paris is difficult to do in October and going on a ski vacation in May will be disappointing. Fall color is very fickle and never happens in spring.
        How do you allocate when people will have time off work? And allocate that around people traveling for work? I suppose one seventh of the population could work Sunday through Thursday another seventh Monday through Friday, then Tuesday through Saturday, Wednesday through Sunday, Thursday-Monday. You get the idea. That would cut down on the mad dash to complete business trips on Friday afternoon. Get ’em to arrive at work at 7:00, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 1 it would spread out the rush hour too. It would cut down on pointless meeting because the only time everybody would … nah, they wouldn’t be able to schedule meetings because it would be somebody’s weekend all the time. How do you make sure Mom, Dad and the kids are all on the same schedule? And get it to synchronize with Grandma’s birthday?

        • Alon Levy

          Fall color is boring here, unlike in North America. But yes, in North America fall is interesting and I encourage more people to take trips then, to avoid the summer, Thanksgiving, and Christmas crunches.

          Re synchronizing everything, you and everyone else commenting assume that seeing all grandparents, uncles, and aunts at once is a good thing.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2018/11/10 – 22:34
            Fall color is boring here, unlike in North America. But yes, in North America fall is interesting and I encourage more people to take trips then, to avoid the summer, Thanksgiving, and Christmas crunches.

            Actually, “fall color” is pretty boring and unidimensional as a reason to visit anywhere. The upper Dordogne valley is probably the best place in France to visit in autumn, but then there is just sooo much more to do and see there than a lot of maple trees (the low density of which is what makes the Euro autumn less visual–but I’m sure there’s an App to correct that in your selfies).

            If you’re into colourful foliage, then right now in Oz is the time of the Jacaranda blooms. The old story for students is that if you haven’t done your study and revision etc by the time the purple erupts then you’ve left it too late (end of year exams in November before their looong summer break; university academic year starts about Feb.). The trees were planted all over the east-coast cities in the mid-19th century, but the best displays are in the Northern Rivers and Brisbane city (eg. Newfarm Park, though actually I’ve noticed it is a bit ratty probably because they have been complacent about these ancient ageing trees–centenarians and possibly less tolerant of urban pollution + heat island effect). Grafton town (Northern Rivers, of NSW, about 800km north of Sydney not to be confused with the other northern rivers at the top end, another couple thousand kms further north) has an annual Jacaranda festival.
            We can even segue here to transit tunnels! Because an article on Musk’s boring plans chose to illustrate it with a pic of Brisbane’s two big TBM, one had its shield painted purple/blue (Jacaranda) and the other was red (Poinciana trees) both widespread city plantings:

          • adirondacker12800

            You don’t have to go see your relatives when they all congregate. It’s a good excuse, that you are too far away, and avoid it. There, your transportation problem is solved.

      • Michael James

        Adirondacker goes to extremes but is basically correct. Except for two things. You can’t always choose to travel in Feb instead of July-Aug (but you can usually choose to travel late evening, or even overnight, instead, if only Eurostar would offer those options, as I whinged*). And Paris in July-Aug (esp. in early-to-mid-Aug when both early and late vacationing Parisians overlap in their absence) really does slow down. A lot. Many places are either closed or on low-staff. IIRC (Alon?) even the Metro runs on late-night or weekend timetables during “normal” operating hours–which is still a good service. I assume there are special arrangements to keep the big state-run museums open and coping with the peak tourist hordes. The tourist hordes shouldn’t complain about any of this because it really is a more pleasant city for that transient period–if not the full authentic Parisian experience.

        As to Eurostar, it is a mystery to me. Full trains is not really the issue–and in principle HSR trains don’t wait for anyone. So if you don’t pass thru Immigration in time, then you will have sacrificed your ticket. Since every seat on every train (including domestic TGV, except perhaps Ouigo which we aren’t talking about here) is pre-assigned, you can’t just wait on the platform “for the next train”. And most of the time, these Eurostar are fully booked so you’ve blown your ticket and your travel–the only exception will be that some much more expensive Business Class seats may be available for you to upgrade to (at your cost).
        But if these delays are happening (and it seems extraordinary to me) it must only be attributable to the bloody Brit passport control. However even then it doesn’t really make sense since it is designed to handle full trains and consecutively at peak times. It’s the only difference between with, say, the incredibly busy service between Paris and Lyon, which handles the same traffic. Once I trapped myself into taking a peak service TGV on a Friday from Bordeaux to Paris, and the train was absolutely full, and when some got off at the mid-point (Tour?) their seats were filled by others getting on at that stop. It was the last TGV (way too early as I have previously whinged) and I think it was the last day of my Eurostar pass …. (and I suppose I didn’t imagine trains towards Paris would be so chocka, compared to trains from Paris; I may have left it to that morning to book my seat). Anyway, all the TGVs in the last couple of hours were as busy and yet they all left and arrived on time without drama. So, my default policy is to blame the Brits. They won’t allow passport control on the trains (from Europe; obviously because these trains don’t actually stop, so refugees etc would use this to land in the UK even if they were caught on the train).
        * Another option, which seems regressive, is to take the ferry option. I don’t mean the bus-ferry-bus (via Calais), which is pretty awful if cheap. But the train (St Lazare), ferry (Dieppe), train (Newhaven) to London (Victoria) is not at all bad. When I did it more times than I care to remember in the 80s-early-90s, it was lost time (but I did it o/n so the main cost was fatigue; I would only do it in daytime now, though it would save you the high cost of a hotel room for that night … ), but today we can do plenty of what we normally do, on a laptop and mobile phone on the train and the ferry. And unlike those good-old-bad-old days which were often very crowded, these days it is not crowded (most people on ferries are taking their cars across; previously there were crowds on the trains). This is a real option for when you have short notice of a trip to UK, and/or it is peak times and you want to avoid that Eurostar hassle (and generally much higher cost ticket at short notice, ie. less than 2 weeks).

  7. R. W. Rynerson

    Growing up in Portland, Oregon I always thought that the Canadians were quite sensible. They celebrated Victoria Day before our Memorial Day, Dominion Day (later Canada Day) before Independence Day, a bank holiday in August and Labor/Labour Day that were diffused by normal summer vacations, and Thanksgiving much earlier than ours. (Columbus Day was not a holiday in Oregon.) Oh, and took off an extra day for Boxing after Christmas. The reason I learned about these holidays as a youngster was because our area was flooded by British Columbia shoppers. Many came in chartered coaches. Oregon has no sales tax, so those were important days for our merchants and yet traffic was not a problem.

    This summer I traveled Berlin–Prague–Kraków–Berlin–Basel–Montpellier–Paris–Freiburg im Breisgau — Berlin tied onto a reunion in Berlin at the start of August. I’m familiar with the European holiday crowd issues, but the trains were never a problem. What I did learn is that North American-style rivalries are creeping in with liberalization. In Kraków’s central bus station staff who should have known where the Deutsche Bahn bus was boarding claimed that they didn’t know or that there was no such thing. Better yet, I found that the SNCF and the ÖBB are colluding — er, cooperating — to offer a Berlin — Paris overnight service. One TGV train each way between Paris and Freiburg connects in Freiburg with ÖBB Nightjet trains overnight to and from Berlin. Almost no one was taking advantage of this connection, so the TGV fare was a bargain. It reminded me that in the U.S. till the last day before Amtrak was launched, some rail companies were trying to screw each other.

  8. Zack D

    Obviously, Alon has declared war on Christmas!

    In Russia during the New Years holiday (Communists banned Christmas but Stalin let them celebrate New Years so it is basically Christmas), all of the trains are simply lengthened and on some trains, more pax coaches replace restaurant cars. I rode a 16 car train to visit my in-laws a few years ago and it was mostly full. But Moscow suffered the same holiday traffic that Americans do though.

  9. Eric

    You may not want to see your racist uncle. But your mother wants to see her brother and you at the same time. And your grandmother wants to see all her descendants together at the same time. For people with children, this typically gives them great happiness. And since nowadays families are often scattered across the country (or countries), this requires everyone to get vacation days at the same time.

  10. Bjorn

    There’s some limited flexibility within intercity modes to scale up service before and after holidays. My understanding is that the weeks before and after holidays tend to have less demand than average weeks (few want to fly out for a conference one week, fly home, and then fly ‘home’ and back the next week). Transport companies should be able to shift regularly-scheduled more intensive maintenance checks to these weeks in order to have as many vehicles on hand during the holiday week (the mechanics would also get more holiday leave approved when they prefer as a bonus).

    The airlines schedule extra flights during otherwise marginal late-night hours: https://crankyflier.com/2015/11/30/airlines-had-a-ton-of-late-night-flights-last-night-that-dont-normally-operate/

    Intercity bus companies love throwing extra sections on regular line runs; I’ve seen a scheduled trip with four on the same timetabled run.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.