The American lust for driving has tapered off in recent years. Per-capita miles traveled is flagging after more than sixty years of solid growth, driven in large part by car-averse millenials, who traveled 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001. The outlook for carmakers is grim: people are capable of working remotely, and more and more are choosing to kill their commute to work from home or some co-op space closer at hand.Last month, economist and author of the Transportationist blog David Levinson tried to extrapolate this death of driving trend out and imagine what 2030 might look like. His post linked together some important issues—traffic, infrastructure spending, the gas tax, driverless cars, telework, 3D printers, and online shopping, to name a few; he expanded on some of these thoughts in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute‘s James Pethokoukis earlier this week:
[P]eople have sort of this expectation that traffic will continue to increase because it has increased in the past for such a long period of time. And this is built into traffic forecasts. It’s built into the way people view the world. But beginning in the early 2000s, in particular after 9/11, with a number of societal changes, including things like increased gas prices, changing demographics, changing employment, the amount of travel that people were engaging in individually has leveled off and has declined on a per capita level.
Levinson focuses on shorter work weeks as a potential driver for a further decline in driving, but telework seems like a much more important variable in this prognostication equation. No one likes their commute, so as the technology undergirding remote work continues to improve, it stands to reason more people will work from home. Of course, there’s still much value in physical interaction (Marissa Mayer would be happy to tell you), but even teleworking a couple days a week, or a handful each month, can on aggregate have large effects on our transportation infrastructure. We build our roads with peak load—rush hour—in mind. Telework changes how we approach and invest in our transportation networks.But as driverless cars proliferate it may undo some of this, and end up putting more cars back on the road during rush:
[P]eople could find that with driverless cars they can go a lot farther and it doesn’t bother them as much. So instead of being willing to drive 60 or 90 minutes a day, maybe they’d be willing to drive 90 to two hours a day or two hours to three hours a day.
However this pans out—whether you cut the commute out entirely with telework, or spend it more productively in the comfortable confines of a driverless car, or more likely a combination of the two—Americans are getting more choices in where and how to work, and how to get there.