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'Peak Car' and the Beginning of the End of the Commute

Traffic is one of those things, like sea levels and our working memory, that we just assume are getting worse with time. Unless we live in a hollowed-out shell of a city like Detroit, our experience has been one of steady and ineluctable increases. We build bigger roads, we lay down light rail, and still the cars come to clog the highways and lengthen our commutes.

Yet a growing number of planners and transportation wonks believe the wave has crested and that, in the developed world at least, we have reached what they call “peak car.” In many places, they note, vehicle miles traveled per person have declined steadily in recent years.

Last week civil engineer David Levinson wrote a blog post on the topic framed as a piece of future history. Datelined November 2030, it asked the question: “What happened to traffic?” It paints a picture of a world where today’s worries about traffic growth are as misguided as those of the 19th century urban planners who thought the biggest obstacle to city growth was the amount of horse manure the transportation system created.

There are several factors supporting the peak-car proponents, some shorter term, some longer. The decline in vehicle miles traveled can be traced in part to the Great Recession and the sluggish growth that followed. People lost jobs and wage growth has been almost nonexistent, which means fewer people can afford cars and gas and family road trips. The population is aging, meanwhile, and older people drive less. With more access to social media and less access to gainful employment, young people are driving less than they used to and evincing a lack of interest in cars (causing deep worry in the automotive industry).

Levinson concentrates on technological change. In his dispatch from the future, he writes:

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 as the workweek shortened from seven to six to five days over the course of the 20th century, he argues, the ability to work remotely on a laptop or tablet or phone will drive a further shortening of the week. By 2015, Levinson predicts, getting every other Friday off will be standard. The amount of time people spend in the office will keep shriveling until the majority of the workweek is spent at home, with people only coming into the office for meetings.

Add to this the forecast of far fewer trips to the store as people order more and more of their household goods online. Someone has to deliver that stuff, of course, but one UPS truck replaces lots of family minivans on the roads. There’s more: People are likely to cluster in cities and get rid of their cars, relying on car-sharing for weekend jaunts and trips to Ikea, and the fact that they have to pay per trip means even fewer trips. The rise of 3D printing-on-demand means less shipping and therefore fewer trucks on the road.

It’s far from clear that all of this will come to pass—the death of the commute has been proclaimed before—and there’s no assurance that working more from home means working less. In fact, there’s evidence (PDF) that the expansion of work into home has only increased the number of hours people work. At the same time, given the choice between working a bit more and spending more time in transit—whether it’s in a car, a train, or a levitating hypersonic capsule—I’d still take more work.

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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