What happened to traffic?

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. Hipsters began to leave the city, and moved to the now ironic suburbs among the working class immigrants.

The Hyperloop Boarding and Alighting problem

It has been noted that there is a very short time between Hyperloop capsules arriving at the Hyperloop station. This potentially makes boarding and alighting difficult, since there is no guarantee everyone will take their seats and be strapped in before the next capsule arrives. This requires either the following capsule to deploy its emergency brake (with bad consequences), or the main capsule to depart without everyone properly strapped (with bad consequences). Even with handlers like a ski-lift, this is less than optimal.


There is a simple solution for this. Pre-load passengers into removable chairs, and then automatically load the removable chairs into the Hyperloop passenger capsule. The pre-loading can take as much time as required, be conducted offsite at the station, with many parallel removal chairs loading bays, and assures that the main infrastructure is fully utilized.

There are a few options with design. Would the chairs be individual, or a set of chairs in series, and thus have one or multiple passengers? (And thus would the Hyperloop passenger capsule have one or multiple passenger chair units?

Would it slide horizontally into the Hyperloop capsule, or be loaded aerially?

The removable chair loading system would have multiple switches, so if a capsule were not ready, the next one could be loaded into the system.

WallE Chairs

In other words, the chairs should not be built into the passenger capsule (as drawn in the alpha-proposal, reproduced here), but into a removable unit. This unit would be robotically unloaded and offloaded.

It is much like removable car seats for babies, with the parents replaced by robots. Or like the chairs in Wall-E, with the chairs physically grounded, and then loaded into the Hyperloop passenger capsule.

I hereby open-source this idea, and don’t have time to develop it further as I am busy with other activities.

A rewarding life

2013 06 09 at 10 27 52

Businesses offer rewards programs for at least two reasons. One to hook you and get you to return for your downstream reward; second, to monitor your behavior, and tie purchases to a single account. The latter is most common at grocery stores, where cash customers could not otherwise be tracked across multiple transactions.

I am of the opinion that in the modern world there is not much privacy left anyway, and who cares if they know I buy toothpaste when I buy chicken wings, but in the following purchase we buy bananas. I use a credit card anyway, and they should be able to do a lot of this tracking already.

If a business offers a rewards program, I am generally willing to sign up, so long as they don’t spam my email account. I still have frequent flyer cards from defunct airlines (generally having migrated my points to its successor). Sadly, I have lost miles that were earned for failure to maintain. American Airlines took away many miles since I didn’t use them for 18 months. This pretty much guarantees I won’t use them again. They didn’t even warn me, the way some other airlines have done, or let me convert the miles into magazine subscriptions.

I have been a continuous Delta Skymiles holder since the early 1980s, and much more intensively since the Northwest merger, and I recently was re-promoted to Silver Elite (I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk, joyous about being in the phone book). I am borderline on this, so it is highly likely I will be relegated to Zinc Peon level next year, but still there are minor perks, like the Club room at airports (though I think you could generally just crash it and no one would notice at most airports).

I also sign up for every hotel program whenever I stay there. This is a problem since my hotels are less likely to be the same ones. I have managed to keep my Hilton points due to TRB every year, but the other hotel programs seem to lose my points, presumably for lack of my use. And I better use Hilton quickly, since TRB is migrating. This is sad. Most recently I just joined the Best Western program. Undoubtedly this will not be repeated. I have never claimed any benefits from a Hotel program, not even a free night, so I must be doing something wrong. The hotel however has used it as an excuse to comp me free Internet after I complained bitterly about the $15/night Internet charge when a Motel Six (which parenthetically, got its name from charging $6/night) gives it away free.

Restaurant reward programs are usually simpler, a punch card. I have gotten free meals (about 1/semester) from these, in particular the cards at some University Dining Service sites. There is always the difficulty about which meals get stamped, which are quite inconsistent between locations. Is a sandwich an “entree”? Is sushi an “entree”? These sometimes stay in my wallet for years. Erbert and Gerbert is more sophisticated than many and has an online sign-up. They gave me a free sandwich randomly, which was cool. Unfortunately, the card is not honored at all locations, which for such a small chain is puzzling.

To save money on future kid footwear purchases, I have signed up for Payless rewards twice, since I lost the first one.

There should of course be a better way than having to track each program, which could become a full-time job. This is a job for biometric screening, such as fingerprints or facial recognition, or something similar. When I go to a store, I would simply put a finger on a digital reader, or look into a retinal scanner, and it brings up my account, just like the movies. If my wife and I are together, we can link our accounts. And so on.

So how will pervasive biometrics change transportation?

Well, the normal pattern is that a new technology both does old things better and enables new things. We can easily imagine reducing the thickness of our wallet and the number of our keys, as biometrics would be used to let us check into places, serve as a frequent-flyer id, give a standard interface for business card exchanges, start our car etc.

But what new things will we do with biometrics that would not happen otherwise? Open road tolling with unique brain-wave identifier payment systems? Real-time hitch-hiker match-making with security? How will we avoid locational tracking when biometrics are everywhere?

Will everything be gamified, so I will earn points for driving on county roads and not city streets, or when I obey the law at signalized crossings?

Comments and suggestions welcome.

Fundamentals driving trends in Intercity Transportation in the US

Despite major proposals for investment in high-speed rail, intercity passenger rail in the US remains and will remain a small mode unless there is some sustained exogenous shock to the system such as higher fuel prices, very stringent environmental regulations, an unforeseen war, or act of terrorism that constrains air transportation. As a mode, rail was in decline in the US from a peak in about 1920 through the 1990s. Presently, Amtrak serves 650 million passenger miles in a peak month (a number that has risen considerably since its nadir), US airlines serve about 80 billion revenue passenger miles in peak months).

US Railroads Total KM of Track
US Railroads Total KM of Track

In contrast with the US, internationally, rail passenger service is growing much faster and serves a much larger share of the market. In the UK for instance, there are now 2.8 billion passenger miles per average month (excluding urban transit), well more than four times the US number for a country with one-fifth the population (in other words, rail usage is more than 20 times as high in the UK as the US), a number that has steadily risen, and can expect to rise more with major investments in HS2 and Crossrail.

Lifecycle theory traces out the deployment path of technologies, from birth, through growth, to maturity and decline. These S-shaped curves have successfully described the deployment of many technologies and will be applied to a variety of transportation systems to identify their prospects. The difficulty remains for predicting modes that are still growing, where they will reach market saturation. E.g. how many flights will people take per year? This requires examination of fundamental factors.

There are a number of social and technological changes that may affect outcomes. The most significant for transportation might be automation, in particular self-driving vehicles (what Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors, recently referred to as “auto-pilot”). (Related automation trends include pilot-less planes (drones) and automated trains).

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of radically altering urban transportation. Their effects on intercity transportation are less clear. On the one-hand they will extend people’s willingness to travel by auto, as they lower the cost to the driver of travel (in terms of their need to exert energy driving and attending to the road), and enable them to engage in other in-vehicle activities. In that regard, they might change the boundary between the “drive or rail” and “drive or fly” decision (e.g. moving the threshold from 300 miles to 400 miles). Thus, they are more likely to affect rail than flying.

On the other hand, self-driving vehicles will likely decrease auto-ownership and increase various types of on-demand car rental, which I have called “cloud commuting”, such as car-sharing (Zipcar, Car2Go, etc.). This is because one of the major difficulties with car rental, especially in less dense areas, having to travel to get the rental car, will be obviated. People with fewer cars on hand are more likely to use shared transportation modes (transit, intercity rail, airplanes), since they will be paying more per trip (they will have to pay to rent the car, while if they owned, they would not attribute ownership costs to a particular trip).

Trade-offs between modes
Trade-offs between modes

Further, so long as other modes remain faster and less expensive over some distance, longer trips will remain in the domain of train and especially airplanes. In the second figure, user-owned driverless cars will likely shift the location of D1, moving it to the right, while user-rented driverless cars change the fixed cost of making a trip by automobile, moving the intercept of the green line with the Y-axis upward (compared to self-owned cars).

We can use this model to examine other types of shifts as well. For instance, more widespread rail networks will aim to push against this trend, moving D1 to the left, and D2 to the right.

How will these trends play out with current and upcoming technologies, considering physical constraints (such as time availability) and economic constraints (such as incomes)? My guess is that car ownership remains the dominant means of transportation for most Americans, and so the range people will travel by car on the net will increase. But the future is complicated, and other factors may intervene.



Prior to the widespread adoption of the internet and the availability of inexpensive screens, passengers occupied themselves by sleeping, listening to music, looking out the window, chatting with neighboring passengers, eating, reading, shopping via catalog, writing, or playing games. On some modes walking around was also permitted. The introduction of airplane in-seat radio channels increased the availability of diversions. The further advance of movies on airplanes (and later buses), first shown to the whole cabin, and later individualized for passengers with their own seat-back screen provided one additional source of diversion for passengers.

Despite the work environment on modes like airplane or bus, especially in the confined spaces of coach, by the late 1990s, passengers also started bringing their own laptop computers, portable DVD players, and later tablets, on-board as an additional tool to enable personalized work and entertainment.

One of the major advantages of being a passenger rather than a driver is the ability to do anything other than driving while traveling. That means travel is not necessarily the lost time that transportation professionals have long treated it as (Lyons and Urry 2005). With the rise of the Internet, and especially the mobile phone, people are expecting to have access to electronic devices (and the internet) for work and play wherever they go. One of the last areas of blackout, the airplane during takeoff and landing, may soon see some relaxation of restrictions (Bilton 2013). Airlines have introduced on-board Wi-Fi (at a high charge) to take advantage of this demand.

If our predictions about the future consisting of the “end of driving”, we then have the “rise of the passenger”. We can model in-vehicle behavior in the future as following the trends of passenger behavior on transit, trains, buses, and planes. People will find a way to divert themselves. We can further envision vehicle makers facilitating this, especially in the interim stages between no-automation and full automation.

My view is that the windshield becomes a transparent heads-up display suitable for entertainment, but see-through so that should the driver need to retake the wheel, the driver still has visibility. This would extend the technology now widely available in airplanes to the passenger dashboard, and replace all that technical mumbo-jumbo with what people want: transparent cat videos.


Linklist: May 4, 2012

Wired: Get Ready To Kickstart Project Hexapod:

“Meet Stompy. He’s a hexapod – a six-legged robot being built by a team of 15 students and three instructors at Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts. And if the rendering above didn’t tip you off, Stompy holds two passengers, can walk over a car and takes up nearly two lanes of road. Needless to say, Stompy is awesome.”

Bloomberg: ‘Jetman’ Soars Over Rio: Video

“Yves ‘Jetman’ Rossy, a record-holding Swiss aerialist, flew his carbon-kevlar jetwing over Rio de Janiero on Thursday morning. During his 11-minute flight he reached a speed of 186 mph and an altitude of almost 4,000 feet.”

Amanda Erickson @ Atlantic CitiesGreening Traffic Lights By Turning Them Off :

“But how’s this for an idea to make traffic patterns greener (and, proponents say, safer): stop using traffic lights altogether. The so-called “naked streets” movement has gained traction across Europe, even in major cities like London.”

[Note to jargon-heads, naked streets = shared space].

Linklist: March 27, 2012

Antiplanner: Semi-Driverless Cars Available Soon :

“Continental Automotive, a company that makes tires and other parts, has put together a semi-driverless car for Nevada. Under the rules in that state, which legalized driverless cars last year, a car must successfully go 10,000 miles without an accident before being marketed in the state. Continental’s car, which is based on a Volkswagen Passat, should pass that mark this week.”

KurzweilAI: New York to Beijing in two hours without leaving the ground? :

“The Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) system (U.S. Patent 5950543, assigned to ET3.com, Inc.) would take passengers from New York to Beijing in just two hours. Advocates of Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) claim it is silent, cheaper than planes, trains, or cars and faster than jets.
How it would work: put a superconducting maglev train in evacuated tubes, then accelerate using linear electric motors until the design velocity is attained. Passive superconductors allow the capsules to float in the tube, while eddy currents induced in conducting materials drive the capsules. Efficiency of such a system would be high, as the electric energy required to accelerate a capsule could largely be recaptured as it slows.”

h/t Brendan Nee: Uber Blog » Uberdata: The Ride of Glory:

“One of the neat things we can do with our data is ask about rider patterns: are there weekend riders that only use Uber post-party? What about the workday commuters who use us every morning? It was while playing around with this idea of (blind!) rider segmentation that we came up with the Ride of Glory (RoG).”

The Hive Mind predicts transportation futures

The Hive Mind (via the NY Times) predicts the future:Imagining 2076: Connect Your Brain to the Internet:

“2024: PRACTICAL ROBOT CARS “By 2018, freeway car pool lanes will be opened to robot-driven cars.”
Larry Smarr, the founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. Readers moved this date 646 times.
2060: FLYING CARS “By 2040, more people will use personal air vehicles for their daily commute than cars.”
Sebastian Thrun, developer of Google’s self-driving car. Readers moved this date 1338 times.”

Linklist: December 1, 2011

IEEE Spectrum asks When Will We Have Unmanned Commercial Airliners? – : “To win over the public, the autopilots of tomorrow will have to start today by exploiting niches where civilian pilots can’t or won’t work—just as was the case in the military. With time, the systems will improve and eventually fan out to conquer additional segments of the broader market.”

Adam Ozimek @ Modeled Behavior describes The rise of micro-markets: “I also sometimes comfort myself knowing I would be outbid in micro-markets. If I’m two minutes late for a train and I find myself thinking “surely the welfare gain to me of them waiting two minutes is bigger than the loss to all the other passengers for being two minutes late!”. But then I consider an auction where I had to buy off every riders’ extra two minutes, and I know I would not win that auction, which I find comforting in a way. When micro-markets like the one I imagine here are real and widespread people will have a less hard time deluding themselves like I initially do. The angry guy in line behind you in line who is mumbling about how late he is running will have less grounds to be angry if he can offer you to buy your place in line but it is not worth it to him.”

Getting Around Minneapolis finds maps of the diffusion of street pavements1895 Paving Map , See also 1899 and 1910.