Dateline: Minneapolis, November 4, 2030
Remember traffic? It was only 30 years ago that people were complaining about getting stuck in traffic. But traffic peaked in the early part of the Century, and has fallen ever since. A few observers picked this up early, but many transportation agencies were in denial. At the time, most analysts saw only two possible futures:
- Future 1: Per capita vehicle travel resumes an upward path. This forecast was the proverbial ostrich with its sand-encased head.
- Future 2: Per capita vehicle travel remains flat but traffic grows with population. Future 2 was already causing concerns as it created pressures on revenues (which were then dependent on falling gas tax revenue), yet DOTs still claimed needs for new construction and expansion of existing roadways despite overall falling demand. Some argued that though demand was falling on average, it wasn’t falling everywhere. And there were still unsolved problems that don’t go away just because travel isn’t increasing.
No one in power foresaw what actually happened.
- Future 3: Per capita vehicle travel falls significantly. At first people attributed this to the Great Recession of the late Bush Presidency, but the evidence was that travel began dropping before the economy tanked. Technology restructured personal travel the way it completely devastated many other industries (remember newspapers, the post office, buying records and paper books, your land-line phone, canals, long distance passenger trains, broadcast television, electric utilities, going to College). Just look at this picture of demand for mail:
Why did traffic fall off a cliff?
Workers no longer “go” to work 6 days a week. Workers got Saturday off in the mid-20th Century. Getting every-other Friday off (the 5/4 schedule) became standard by 2015, establishing the 3-day weekend every other week as the norm. By 2020, this was every weekend, as people moved to a 9 hour day, 4 days per week at the office, and the other 4 hours were “at home” work – checking email on the long weekend, erasing once strict separation of home and work. By 2025 taking every-other Monday off (the 4/3 schedule) was established in most large employers. Today we are seeing half-days on Wednesdays for many office workers, with only Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Thursdays as interactive collaboration days. The “flipped” office, where people were expected to do “work” at home on their own computers, and only show up for meetings is now standard.
The empty office buildings across the landscape led to the famous Skyscraper Crash, the Real Estate Office – fueled recession of 2021. Many of those empty buildings were converted to apartments, as we had about twice as much office space as we needed with the new work arrangements. Some cities were virtually abandoned by business in this process. This helped undercut new residential construction in the suburbs, and suburban land prices fell, attracting lower income immigrants, who subdivided large tract mansions into housing for large extended families, and leading to a measurable “white-flight” back to the center city. So while the suburbs were now less expensive, some actually gained population. Lower income residents still own cars, but not as many, and many a 2 and 3-car garage is being transformed into a workshop or small store.
Shorter careers are also the norm now, almost half the population doesn’t enter the regular workforce until 30, and most leave by 60. The workforce has continued its drop as technology-enabled worker productivity reduces the value of older workers. Firms also are not interested in paying for training, so most people now go through a 10-year unpaid internship while simultaneously attending school online and engaging other pursuits on a more or less random schedule.
Shoppers no longer “go” to shop, but order online, or let ‘bots and virtual agents order for them, especially for regular stocks like paper towels, napkins, and Spam. And then they let most goods get delivered. With less window shopping and a decline in advertising, the culture became less materialistic, going shopping as activity continues its long 30 year drop, and consumption of material goods has declined with it. Internet Ad-blockers, Netflix, and other time-shifting technologies made ads decline (though not disappear, many companies now want to coat road surfaces with new digital ad-delivery technology – a proposal that is splitting the Coalition Government in a few states), and desperate DOTs are looking favorably on sponsored roads).
Widespread car-sharing programs made it possible for many people, especially in cities, to let go of ownership of their cars. Instead of having a very low marginal cost for a trip, now there is a higher cost per trip, making people think twice, and drive less.
More urban living, much of it in abandoned and remodeled office buildings, reduced the distances people needed to travel. Many 20-somethings live in these windowless, but well-connected, skyscraper dorms, while artists have begun to occupy and see inspiration in the detritus of the late 20th century skyway network. Cities began to encourage accessory housing, and conversion of garages to apartments.
In the early 2020s, the two-decade long decline in Gas Tax revenue due both to declining demand and increasing electrification of the fleet finally enabled the push for mileage fees. The Green-Libertarian Coalition Government taking office in 2025 enacted a number of reforms to get the federal government out of local transportation, and encourage states to toll their highways. While gas taxes were eliminated, refinery taxes were implemented. The government also put in place carbon and other externality taxes to replace income taxes. More importantly, agencies implemented off-peak discounts, with higher peak prices. Trips that were not urgent at rush hour on Tuesday, Wednesday, and especially the very busy Thursday afternoon in the summertime turned out not to be particularly urgent at all, and total travel dropped more.
By 2025, some cities began to outright ban cars within core areas. Since most residents did not own cars, this became an easy political sell. In those cities, walking, bike, scooter, and bus use soared. This affected not only residents, but anyone going to the city. Cars remain popular for trips outside of cities, but there are fewer cars, fewer car trips per resident, and fewer non-city residents.
Most areas built before 1950 in the US (now housing roughly one-third of the US population) saw significantly improved transit service, with real-time information about arrivals and schedules. With more urban residents and fewer cars, the demand for transit picked up. Agencies were able to put on more buses with the uptick in demand, further encouraging bus use and people abandoning their cars, and now bus-powered urban transit agencies (some of which have a few legacy rail lines) are one of the few profitable branches of government. New autonomous buses have reduced labor costs significantly, and electric power has dropped fuel costs. Transit organizations are now seeing ridership levels they last saw in the 1950s.
Decentralized manufacturing, including 3-D printing on-demand, has begun to diminish long-distance shipping of many goods, which can now be made locally.
Where will the car go? Some warn that the new generation of inexpensive, electrically powered robo-cars will make travel more attractive, and reverse the three decade slide in driving. Others foresee that new light-weight robo-copters will make roads obsolete, and people will just take off from their roofs, and go anywhere they want. Many also suggest that living in cities will lose its desirability with newly low cost housing available in rural areas. But no one thinks congestion is coming back, time is too short to waste it sitting in traffic.
- Kaiser Family Foundation says 39% of US workers are “white collar”. While this doesn’t track perfectly with office workers (since some blue collar workers are clerical and can telework, and some professionals (e.g. doctors) are paid for their face time), we will go with that for now. That means we lost 23% of work trips.
White collar workers are those who self-identify as professionals or managers. Blue collar workers are those who self-identify as assistants and clerical workers, technicians and repair workers, artists and entertainers, service workers, laborers, salespersons, operators, skilled trade workers, assemblers, or former military.
- Just like Saturday used to be a regular workday for most people, now many work 4/5 plans. There are many combinations, almost all of which reduce the amount of peak hour travel.
- Hipsters began to leave the city, and moved to the now ironic suburbs among the working class immigrants.