The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Looking Beyond The Commute

For the first time in sixty years, Americans’ desire to drive is waning. Wonder what the next 20 years might bring? Last week, economist David Levinson penned a retrospective analysis on America’s changing traffic patterns…dated November 4, 2030. This hypothetical blog post (h/t Reihan Salam) imagines a world in which per capita miles driven has plummeted, and attempts an explanation:

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).

Why did traffic fall off a cliff?

This scenario seems far-fetched at first, and at times gets a bit silly (people quitting the workforce in their 60s, or working unpaid internships through their 20s seems unlikely), but ultimately it proves a worthwhile thought experiment, especially when a lot of the trends Levinson identifies as responsible for this hypothetical drop in traffic are already underway.

As we’ve noted many times before, commuting is an odious and increasingly unnecessary daily chore. Levinson points out that shorter work weeks with longer working days would be one way to cut down on time spent in traffic, and that telework can eliminate the task entirely. Both seem plausible.

He goes on to identify the “famous Skyscraper Crash” of 2021, in which businesses realized corporate real estate was a vestigial aspect of doing business, as another reason for decreased traffic. In fact, this may already be underway; we’re seeing signs that we’ve hit “peak office.”

Levinson hits on a few more points familiar to regular Via Meadia readers—3D printers decentralizing manufacturing, the continued rise of online shopping, and a possible end to the gas tax—as further reasons for a downtick in driving. And while we’re not going to make any investment decisions based on these predictions, we like seeing this kind of approach. There’s a dearth of imagination in how we look at the near and medium term future. The transition to an information economy is going to change a lot more than just the way we work, and now is as good a time as any to start thinking about what the future will look like.

Published on November 11, 2013 5:00 pm