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Death of Driving
Open Roads in America's Future?

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.

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  • mgoodfel

    Twenty years ago, I could go to a movie for $9, or drive for 2-3 hours on some scenic back roads. Now, a recent day trip into San Francisco from Sacramento cost me $100 in gas, tolls, parking and lunch. For that price, I could get 80 movies from Redbox, unlimited movies for a year from Amazon Prime, a couple of A-list video games, or 10 books.

    The road trips have gone from cheap entertainment to very expensive.

    • free_agent

      You write, “The road trips have gone from cheap entertainment to very expensive.”

      But it seems to me that “drive for 2-3 hours on some scenic back roads” is still fairly inexpensive; given the better gas mileage and decrease in gas prices relative to incomes, even less expensive than 20 years ago. Even your Sacramento to SF trip, 180 miles round-trip, or maybe 9 gallons of gas, is a bit over $30 at the prices I see. The other $70 of your trip was buying things in SF (parking, lunch, and tolls). But you know that buying things in SF is expensive.

      • mgoodfel

        I drive a van — true, that’s not exactly fuel efficient, but that’s what I drive (I use a wheelchair.) It gets around 15 mpg so that’s 12 gallons of gas. It was earlier this year, and we were paying close to $4/gal then. So $48 dollars, plus $20 parking, $8 tolls, and I think $20 admission for the Exploratorium and $20 lunch there. An expensive day out!

        The point remains that the ratio between driving and electronic entertainment has changed. It’s much, much cheaper to be entertained at home, making a day out look relatively expensive.

        • Kavanna

          It’s a long-term change that replaces transportation with communication. There’s a great essay by Daniel Boorstin about this trend somewhere ….

        • free_agent

          Yeah, you’re right about “It’s much, much cheaper to be entertained at home [than it used to be]”. But my point remains that you were comparing “drive for 2-3 hours on some scenic back roads” with a trip to the Exploratorium, of which 1/2 of the total cost is things that specifically involve *going to the Exploratorium*. By your calculation, the driving part itself is only $48, which working back through 20 years of inflation ( is equivalent to about $28 in 1992. But that 3 hour road trip probably did cost you around $28 in 1992. Which is around what going to 3 movies would have cost you. (And $48 is only a bit more than what going to 3 movies would cost you now.) The difference is not that driving has become more expensive, but at-home electronic entertainment has become dramatically less expensive.

  • rheddles

    Would the Right to Privacy have been recognized in the absence of the automobile? For there was no real expectation of privacy before then. And now that the privacy that the automobile brought us is disappearing as a result of new technology, is there any surprise the costly automobile will be abandoned? But for what new source of privacy?

    And what are the implications for that great dependent of privacy, Roe v. Wade?

  • free_agent

    What fraction of auto miles driven are chores (commuting, taking the kids to day care, shopping) and what fraction are seen as entertaining?

  • Kavanna

    There’s not a lot of evidence that the Millennials want to drive less. The problem is the economy is not giving them jobs with prospects for real advancement. Something similar happened in the 1930s and 1940s. It changed again drastically, in the 1950s and 60s.

    There is also the 40-year impact of the control of our transportation policy by ideologues who keep pouring money into losers like light rail, “smart growth,” and so on. The result is that our highway infrastructure has not kept up with the last 30 years or so of traffic growth.

  • ljgude

    I get the impression that there are a whole bunch of both known and unknown unknowns that are going to effect the future of driving.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I don’t think self driving vehicles will increase traffic, as I think networked vehicles will be able to organize traffic to it’s most efficient and highest carrying capacity. Also unmentioned in the article is improved air travel like the Moller Skycar.

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