Imagine the proverbial millennial American commuter: a college-educated, city-dwelling professional in their late 20s to early 30s who bikes to work on nice-enough days and takes public transit otherwise. Sounds okay, right? However, if the typical global commute has one thing in common, it’s the almighty car.
Every morning and evening around the world, in cities from Moscow to Jakarta, Indonesia—which has some of the worst commuter traffic in the world—people get into automobiles and stop-start their way to and from work through gridlock.
It’s a pretty bleak reality. There's a strong relationship between commuting and unhappiness, and the longer your commute, the less healthy and satisfied with life you're likely to be. Besides the tedium and hours lost, all that time spent in transit translates to a deep reliance on oil extraction, rising carbon emissions, and pollution that causes asthma and other health problems. In a year, American commuters alone run through 3 billion gallons of fuel while inching through delays caused by congestion.
A different future is possible, though. One day commuters might have a lot more options beyond listening to endless hours of drive-time radio and prestige podcasts while idling behind the wheel.
Commuting—the idea that home and work would require a journey of more than a mile or so—began in the United States in the 19th century, as Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities were connected by train lines to homes in the suburbs. By the second half of the 20th century, most American commuters were using cars.
According to the Department of Transportation, congestion in major American cities continues to creep up. While time spent in traffic decreased during the recession, when fewer people were driving to work, now car commutes are as onerous as ever. But the way that people commute is changing; in this country, for instance, the number of vehicle miles traveled per capita is still down compared to 2005. The population is growing and people are getting back to work, but fewer are depending on cars to get there. To a transportation expert, that counts as a dramatic development.
"We are seeing a sea change of reactions to transport innovations," says Kevin Krizek, a professor of environmental design at University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of the 2015 book The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport. (An updated third edition was released last year.) "The world is changing very quickly, and it’s influencing travel patterns in ways that are really tectonic."
Even if cars still dominate the roadways, more cities are looking to diversify the ways that workers get to and from their jobs, and the most straightforward way to get people out of their cars is to offer mass-transit options and make it easy for people to use them. Denver has spent billions of dollars adding commuter rail lines and express bus routes over the past 12 years; Jakarta—where trains are so crowded that people used to ride on the rooftops, before the city installed overhead concrete balls to stop them—is trying to build new light rail between city center and the satellite cities of Bogor, Depok, and Bekasi. Columbus, Ohio—which, in 2016, won the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge, along with $40 million in federal funds—is working on trip-planning tools that consider multiple modes of transportation, and creating a common payment system that can be used on all of them. (That last bit might sound simple and obvious, but few transit systems have that sort of sensible integration.)
When land routes get congested, commuters may start looking for alternatives. In cities where commuters have to cross giant rivers every day, ferries are coming back in style. New ferry routes have sprung up in New York over the past few years, where 19th-century commuters from Brooklyn and New Jersey used to come into Manhattan by boat. In Istanbul, most commuters cross the Bosporus strait by bus, but even as new bridges have spanned the river, hundreds of thousands of commuters have stuck with a ferry system that traces its history back to the start of steam-ferry service in 1837. Some transportation companies are even starting to imagine how commuters might make it to work not by water, but by air: Uber has envisioned a "network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically," lifting commuters over crowded roads, and a drone company is now making one-person “hoverbikes” that look like they came straight from Star Wars—bikes that the Dubai police force is planning to test out.
Even the commuters who do stick with cars could end up with very different rides to work. Columbus’s Smart City plan also explores the possibilities of autonomous or connected vehicles with technology to navigate streets without a driver at the wheel, or less human supervision while navigating familiar routes. It’s possible to imagine a future in which roads are clogged up with self-driving cars instead—a seemingly identical situation to today, only with drivers’ hands and attention liberated. Like train commuters, they would be free to read, play games, or get down to work.
It’s possible to see how self-driving vehicles—when combined with the push toward on-demand shared vehicles—could be used more communally: instead of each person having to depend on their own car, parked at home or at work, that car could be picking up other passengers during the day or night. Some commuters are already opting to use ride-sharing services to ease their commute, whether that means calling a car or—in places like Jakarta—a motorbike. In some ways, self-driving cars could work a lot like ride-sharing, only without the drivers: call a car and one would come pick you up, with other passengers already inside. Ride-sharing companies are already developing algorithms to optimize drop-off and pick-up routes for passengers willing to share a car for a cut in price; one could envision a self-driving van that would operate as a free-ranging bus—stopping often to pick up and drop off passengers, but also delivering each rider exactly where they want to go. Las Vegas is already experimenting with an autonomous shuttle bus that makes a short loop around downtown, and an autonomous shuttle company, EasyMile, has opened offices in France, Singapore, and, most recently, Denver. Any truly autonomous car, though, could be dispatched to drive around and pick up passengers.
If no one's driving the vehicle, it could also be transformed into a different type of social or work space. All the passengers could face each other around a table, for instance, as in a train's café car, or the vehicle itself could also serve as an office. The global design and innovation firm IDEO imagines that commutes could invert entirely: instead of workers traveling to the office, sleek, self-driving office space would travel to the workers, picking up each in turn and serving as a mobile meeting room or the office equivalent of an RV, parked in a picturesque spot for the day.
"If you think of the notion of a truly autonomous, shared, and electric fleet, instead of a privately owned fleet, it starts to open up some new possibilities," says Danny Stillion, executive design director at IDEO Palo Alto. "We might bring the workplace to each other, versus going to a workplace together."
Alternatively, we could simply stop going to the office at all; the percentage of time spent working from home keeps going up, as communications technology and infrastructure improves. Although full-time at-home workers make up only a small slice of the American workforce (6.6 percent, as of the 2010 census), 43 percent of all workers spent at least some time working from home each week in 2016—up from 39 percent in 2012, according to a recent Gallup report. In some fields, though, the jump is much more dramatic: a 2012 census report found that in “computer, engineering, and science occupations,” the number of people who reported working from home went up 69 percent between 2000 and 2010. The rise in people working from home means that some jobs could be decoupled from location altogether, making commuting obsolete. Soon it'll even be possible to get a good internet connection in the remotest parts of Alaska—so if you wanted to work as, say, a web developer in a place like Point Hope, which is above the Arctic Circle, you could (in theory) do the job as easily as if you were living in San Francisco. In the future, the idea that we dragged our bodies to work in the same physical space as our coworkers every single day could seem like an odd, quaint practice.
But there’s also a different version of the future of commuting, in which we regularly travel even longer distances—across multiple state lines and international borders—just to get to the office.
"We talk a lot about flexible workplaces and work practices changing, but employers still demand a huge presence from their employees," says David Ralph, an assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin who has studied the "Euro-commuters" who commute to different countries for work.
Cheap flights already make it possible to live in Ireland and commute weekly to England or Germany for work. (A round-trip ticket from Dublin to Frankfurt can cost as little as $50, under the right conditions.) In the future, technologies such as Elon Musk's “hyperloop” (a transit tube that minimizes friction, allowing transport pods to move at speeds averaging 600 miles per hour) could make it seem even more reasonable to live in an affordable city and commute to an expensive one that would be hours away by car—from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Denver, for example.
Most likely these possibilities will coexist in some way, and workers could simply have more choices for how they bridge the gap between work and home. In the near future, that might mean having the option of taking the train when you're planning a night out drinking after work, and driving when you need the flexibility of a car. But if train tracks and highways shaped the current state of our commutes and communities, these new technologies have the potential to alter the shape of the places we live and work. Picture an entirely residential city, dedicated to family life and leisure: does it feel like a giant suburb, or a new type of place? Do office life and communal welfare improve if a standard commute is walking down the street to the neighborhood coworking space, where everyone catches an autonomous shuttle to the middle-school soccer game after work? If in the 20th century commuting created a new type of lifestyle in the suburbs, the work we do and the ways we get there in this century could change how we live.