More on peak driving and its implications

Reihan reports:

University of Minnesota economist David Levinson envisions a future in which per capita vehicle travels falls significantly, bringing traffic congestion down with it. The chief driver of this death of traffic is not the emergence of a new transportation technology, though technology certainly plays a role in Levinson’s scenario. Rather, it is the shrinking of the American workweek coupled with new business models which draw primarily on existing technologies. Though written in an understated style, it is quite entertaining. I recommend reading it in its entirety. A few aspects of his vision struck me as particularly notable:

1. Just as it was once standard for U.S. workers to work a six-day week, Levinson imagines that the workweek will continue to shrink. Every-other Friday off (the 5/4 schedule) becomes standard by 2015; by 2020, the standard schedule becomes a 9 hour day with four days a week in the office and 4 additional hours of checking in from home; by 2025, workers are taking every-other Monday off (the 4/3 schedule); and by 2030, the “flipped” office, like the “flipped” classroom, becomes the norm — i.e., workers do the bulk of their work at home, and they come to the office for “interactive collaboration days.”

2. But it’s not just the workweek that will change. The pattern of how we work over the life course will also change. Levinson envisions a world in which almost half the population doesn’t enter the paid workforce until age 30, as firms lose interest in financing training. Instead, most people go through an extended apprenticeship period that can last as long as a decade, combining unpaid internships and attending school online. And most people exit the workforce by age 60, as technological advances reduce the value of older workers.

3. The changing workweek causes the value of office buildings to plummet. As office buildings are converted to apartments, the least desirable of which become home to the 20-somethings toiling away at their unpaid internships (subsidized, presumably, by parents, or sustained by part-time work), residential constructions in the suburbs grinds to a halt, and suburban property values drift down, thus making suburban neighborhoods more attractive to low-income households. Large garages are transformed into stores, workshops, and accessory dwellings as families choose to maintain fewer automobiles. Car-sharing, meanwhile, grows more entrenched as a larger share of the population comes to reside in urban cores. (This has the effect of reducing per capita vehicle trips because while car-sharing eliminates many of the fixed costs associated with vehicle ownership, it increases the marginal cost per trip.)

4. Shopping, once a big contributor to vehicle trips, is transformed as people (and their autonomous agents) order online and have goods delivered; decentralized manufacturing and 3-D printing on-demand, in turn, shrink supply chains

There is more at the link


2015 is 13 months from now. What an absurd prediction. Otherwise, it sounds interesting.

At least, that prediction will be verifiable soon. Rather than predicting what the world will be like 20-50 years into the future, we ought to be digging up what people predicted 20-50 years ago about what our world would be like now.

What are people going to do on their days off? Sit around in their houses?

LOL, +1

Waste time on MR until their DMV appointment?

Seriously though, the kids are less "can you take me to" and more "I'll be in my room playing Minecraft."

Exactly my thought.
Why would one want to go anywhere?

Sitting around commenting on economics blogs, most likely.

People on days off are less likely to be on the roads during peak hours so increasing days off work should reduce congestion.

I think my sister, who works for an oil company, works 4-10's. Which is kind of interesting, not revenue enhancing.

The Federal government has 4-10 and 5-4-9 schedules - plus lots of telework options.

Also 3-12 (plus 1-8 every other week). Good thing if you're commuting to DC from Gettysburg or some other crazy idea that's far more common than a sane observer would predict.

The State of CA has the 5 hours of actual work schedule. Golf 4 days a week.

The mention of 3-D printing discredits the rest of the article, not that it isn't full of silly predictions.

I don't love the article, but falling VMT is a thing. At first it was (IMO) easy to take it as a measure of recession, but it looks like it might be more than that, new patterns of work as well ...

(I don't hate the article either.)

Maintain your priors. Just like housing, automobiles are durable goods and the recession was characterized by a large overhang of those. Some purchases were brought forward by low interest rates and government incentives, but vehicle sales are only recently returning to the replacement rate. For the same reasons that people arent moving into houses, they are not buying and using cars. Gas prices have retreated, so that isnt as much of a factor although falling wage bills have made transportation relatively more expensive.

The effects of the recession are far from over. As you suggest, there have been some long term structural changes. Perhaps the average commuting distance has fallen. If so, this should rise again when the housing market recovers.

"Rather, it is the shrinking of the American workweek"

The recent Brookings report on the shrinking of the American workforce suggests that trend is not toward everybody working less, but toward fewer Americans working.

I think if you look at the numbers Europe started down the path the same way. Less labor force participation, that was later followed by shorter work weeks. Right now workers still work long work weeks, but fewer works means the culture will shift towards leisure. Over time work weeks will probably shrink to accommodate these cultural changes.

And how! One of my coworkers recently spent Friday evening at work, and by Friday evening I mean part of Saturday morning. Need to update those bank accounts after all.

I do not see any of these leisure benefits coming the way of us poor, beleaguered accountants. It seems that every new technological development demands increased hours because so much more is expected. The system can generate 10 reports per day, so at least 8 are expected, and minor errors that require fixing and investigation require 30-45 minutes per report.

Exaggerations, of course. Information-Age means I Want Extraneous And Irrelevant Information Age.

Who is paying for the students in their twenties doing unpaid internships and computer classes until they turn 30? Not everyone has parents who can bail them out over and over again.

It sounds more likely you'd have some students doing that, while most end up doing low-paid service sector jobs on the bottom side of the Autor Divide while trying to skill up over time.

Quite possible with Federally subsidized student debt. A 25 year old with no family and cheap tastes can probably live on $12K. Doing unpaid internships from 22-30 in "graduate student work programs" comes out to about $100K in debt (no interest as long as you're a student). Throw $100K in undergrad debt and its $200K total in debt. Certainly high, but many people graduate with more debt. Plus politically the US seems to be moving towards generous student debt forgiveness, through a combination of percentage of income caps, forgiveness after a certain time period, and most likely periodic jubilees around contested elections.

You can't live on $12,000 and drive a car, thus reduced VMT results. Unless your part-time job is driving a taxi; pizza delivery requires you supply the car.

In a 4/5 schedule, does everyone take the same every-other-Friday off, or are there two different classes each with their own Friday?

Generally two different groups, so the office is manned at half-strength on Fridays. Then the bosses call meetings of their salaried employees on Friday, ad work just *has* to get done, and suddenly, you don't get every other Friday off anymore.

If it's a customer-service organization, there will typically be staggered Fridays so there is always someone available.

If in-house productivity is the goal, then ideally everyone on the same schedule and the office is closed on alternate Fridays.

If it's an asshole-run office, then it doesn't mattter, because every Friday will be a just-this-once "voluntary" emergency unpaid overtime Friday.

During the 1979 energy crisis (gas lines, rising prices), 10 hours a day for four days a week was a commute-minimizing reform introduced by many firms, such as the weedwacker factory where I had a summer job. It was highly popular with weedwacker management and labor for the first few weeks, but few missed it when it was dropped later in the summer.

Point #1: Would not a steady decline in aggregate hours worked lead to less income? Would not a decline in income lead to lower real estate prices? The predictions of less traffic really seemed to hinge on the prospects of declining individual wealth. The irony is that just a few years ago there was a lot of of hand wringing because the US transportation system was unable to handle the trucks needed to ship all of America's commerce. Well, if you have less commerce you have less trucks and less cars. In other words, poverty will solve our transportation woes!

Point #2: I think the predicted phenomenon has already transpired in upstate New York. Every time I have driven Interstate 88 between Binghamton and Schenectady I marvel at how few cars and trucks are sharing the road with me. In 1970 New York State was #2 in population. Now it is #3 and soon to be #4. It appears that taxation and regulation ruined the economy and millions decided that the cold winters made it not worth staying.

Point #3: In the long run we are all dead.

It appears that taxation and regulation ruined the economy

You sure it wasn't mostly the invention of air conditioning?

Air conditioning didn't steal my bike.


Peak driving was 2005--when the oil supply stalled--not 2007. Per capita vehicle ownership peaked in 2006.

The relative probability of a senior (44+ years old) has risen dramatically compared to the relative probability of a junior (less than 44 year old). (UMTRI)

Only 19% of those aged 18-39 without a drivers license have a full time job, according to the UMTRI.

Declines in VMT has been historically, without exception, associated with periods of economic distress.

Unemployment explains 80% of the reason that young people are driving less, according to the HLDI.

US airline departures are down even more, 16% since 2005, and 30% off trend.

Home heating fuel use is down 46% since 2005, even though on road diesel and gasoline are down by only 0% and 4% respectively.

All the data suggest that Americans are desperately trying to hold on to their cars.

Meanwhile US intercity bus travel has been growing at 7% per year.

High oil prices are simply driving people out of their cars and into mass transport.

Anyone who wants to see my Woodrow Wilson School presentation on the issue is welcome to drop me an email.

So he says "Shorter careers are also the norm now, almost half the population doesn’t enter the regular workforce until 30, and most leave by 60."

That's example where you say the same thing, but with more anger?

That's nice. If they ever want to retire, at today's low interest rates and long life expectancies, they're going to have to work for 40 years (starting young helps) and save close to 30% of income. See my Financial Analysts Journal article at

I phrased that badly. I mean that both authors are citing declining employment for both the young and old, while one author accuses the other of having bad answers. You are absolutely right that for many the declining opportunity at both ends of the age spectrum is a tragedy.


More than just about anything else, being able to drive is -- in a practical, where the rubber meets the road sense -- freedom.

Personally, climbing Whitney in my tennis shoes did more for my sense of freedom and mobility. Maybe your 4x4 can go there, but I don't need your 4x4.

How did you get to Mt. Whitney?

Oh that's easy and interesting. I took a private car (with 3 friends sharing direct costs) while YOU helped pay for my trip. Thank you.

BTW, for those willing to prove more freedom and mobility than me, you can get there by way of the Pacific Crest Trail. I could hop on less than 50 miles from here.

And don't get me started on insufficient user fees (a gas tax too low to pay for roads, and a transfer from the general population).

Does not the general population benefit from roads?

If not for the roads how do the fresh eggs get delivered from the farm to the corner market?

If you want to make sure your economic signals are correct, you'd tax the trucks for their diesel, and then the eggs would reflect that cost. Wouldn't you?

Why would a transfer from personal or corporate profit be better?

(As I'm sure you can see, a marginal decision about train-or-truck transport should not be made based on who has the better transportation subsidy.)

The tax you argue is too low, so set it higher and egg consumers are still going to be paying the higher unit cost for getting their eggs delivered to the local Whole Foods to fuel their Mt. Whitney freedom-climbs.

So ... I'm the only one of us who wants the price signals to be real, rather than for the roads to be over-consumed, in response to indirect subsidy? Hmm. I would have thought I'd not be the most market oriented in this thread. Nor would I be the first to suggest that things which drop off the road in response to real costs, should drop off.

(Almost got me, a Trader Joes and Mt Whitney guy)


You write about assessing the true cost of the roads to those who benefit from them as if that is easily done. But is it? Consider that your cable company does not charge based on the usage (ie hours of TV watched). Your internet provider does not charge based on usage (ie megabytes of data downloaded). Your landline phone company pretty much provides all the calls you wan to make for single price and your cell phone company expands this to three or four price levels. Is not the person watching 50 hours per week of Netflix freeloading off all those internet customers who browse text only blogs like this one?

So when you write about "overruse" of roads what do you mean? Some people drive 1000 miles a week. Others drive 10. Think of the former like the Netflix customer and the latter like the blog reader. If both are happy with the "cost" assigned to them, even if it is unequal, then who is to say the situation is unequitable?

The truth is that freedom blesses everyone and there can never be too much of it. A society that seeks to price every activity and assess a "customer" fee for every good received is not a free one. Why should government pursue such a pricing strategy when private companies like Comcast and Verizon do not?

I think Anti-Gnostic, those are a bunch of questions which are close to self-answering. For now fuel use is a really good guide to road use and wear (big heavy things burn more). In the future (as Oregon proposes) you may need to track plug-ins, but right now they are few, light, and not a big road burden. And then certainly the cost of fuel should shape the Netflix or RedBox (or bike to RedBox) decision. It's not really that hard, and on the other side, the idea that we should transfer from income taxes "because it all works out" seems tenuous, unproven. An certainly the transfer hids the public costs of roads (often leading to a public perception that roads are 'free" and whereas "public transportation" is an added cost.)

A reminder, that car-bufs are parsimonious about funds for bike paths, local public transport, and long distance passenger rail. The justification they use for their bias is that "gas tax should pay for roads," forgetting of course that gas tax doesn't even do that. So, "freedom?" Making your favorite transportation mode a natural right?

When I climbed Mt. Whitney, I drove my Dad's 1973 Buick LeSabre to Whitney Portal.

But I'm sure they'll be installing a trolley to the trailhead any day now.

I think they'll keep the road, and the hiking pass lottery, rather than institute an online auction.

(I sense that you are both saying true things, sharing many of those true things, but arguing about whose list is better.)

I'm pretty sure I'm still going to be working 7 days a week

" ....nd 4 additional hours of checking in from home." Seriously believe that people will limit themselves to 4 additional hours at home? We will all compete ourselves to 10 additional hours at home on Fridays alone.

Let's see - fewer people will work, for fewer hours. That does not sound like a terribly inviting future, as productivity hasn't been going up fast enough to support people at the same standard of living with less actual work done. Especially consider the impact on young adults who are expected to waste their 20s in worthless internships and/or living with their parents, instead of embarking on careers and independent adult living.

Sure - if we as a society are headed for this sort of decline, it makes sense that people would drive less - they won't be able to afford to, and they won't have any good reason to.

If I can work from home for the three working decades before I'm kicked to the curb at age 60, the smart play would be to buy some exurban acreage since I don't need facetime at an office, Amazon will ship everything to my door, and I'll need to grow my own food and raise chickens once I'm no longer competitive with the robots.

Of course, I've been hearing that we're all going to be in virtual workspaces and use video-conferencing for years but the highways are still full of commuters and airplanes are still packed to the gills with business travelers.

Not having a lot of facetime with the bosses is a good way to get yourself RIF-ed the next time layoffs are being decided upon.

driving up and down the 405 freeway today it's simply impossible to believe this article.

when the next ten million people arrive here, i'm sure the gridlock will worsen, 10 hour work week or not.

Very interesting, but some of the comments are better.

1. Work hours per week will continue to decline, more rapidly than is predicted.
2. The utterance about work over the life-cycle has to be dead wrong: Who will pay for the under 30's, as asked in a comment? Clearly, we will all work longer years for multiple reasons too obvious and compelling to enumerate.
3. Car sharing is cute: Like sharing toilets, really. Personally, I hate it.
4. Fewer shopping trips is probably correct.

If you don't need to be in the office, why not indulge the oft-observed preference for more space?

Why don't more people pick up on this point? Working from home and urban living are in conflict with one another.

People I know who spend significant amounts of time working remotely use that freedom to live farther away from the city and their job so that they can have a higher standard of living. It's the main reason I know people who live in New Hampshire.

"freedom to live farther away from the city and their job so that they can have a higher standard of living."

Since when did living farther away from the city mean a higher standard of living? Cities have better shopping, restaurants, entertainment, access to medical care etc. than the forested countryside. Want to change places with the New Guinea highlanders or the Jivaro of the Amazon? They live away from the city but their standard of living isn't the envy of anyone I know. Folks like you just can't stomach being around the teeming masses.

Larger houses, more land, better schools, less crime, less pollution, lower prices for the goods and services they use, equal or better access to products with the advent of the internet and shipping, cheap or free parking, better access to the outside and nature in general, better parks, better sports facilities, better medical care. That sort of thing. I was referring to the suburbs and far suburbs, not to the Amazon.

There are unique benefits to living in the city. Services that require large scale to operate, such as pro-sports or concerts, or small niches that aren't viable without enough population in close proximity such as opera are certainly better in urban environments. Plus you can drink and don't need to drive home.

Different people have different preferences. It's obvious that far more people prefer the former to the latter, but there's no shortage of people who prefer the latter.

Larger houses? The largest houses are always in big cities. Families are smaller, what's with huge houses anyway. Why do you need more land? Are you going into farming? Who says rural schools are better than urban schools? Do more Harvard students come from rural South Dakota or Boston? There's probably less crime in real numbers outside of big cities but is that the case on a per capita basis? There's no shortage of theft in the burbs. Suburbans pay the same prices for a pair of jeans, a loaf of bread or a case of beer as their urban counterparts.
When the urban nimbys move to Green Acres they bring their big city attitudes with them. Zoning is number one, building permits, more local government services, increased transportation infrastructure, all the other bureaucratic nonsense they wanted to leave behind but can't live without. But they want the new place to remain exactly as it was when they bought their island in the metro. Simultaneously they're parasites on the city, making their nut in the concrete canyons and then scurrying away to the burbs and complaining because the neighbor doesn't mow his lawn often enough.

Put another way, we live in high densities mostly to coordinate our production (i.e., our jobs), not our consumption (i.e., our lives).

If I only had to be at the office rarely (or never), I'd be living in rural New Hampshire or Upstate New York, in a bigger house with acres of land at lower cost. Hopefully this will soon come to pass.

Can we please have retail workers and nurses still working on Thanksgiving? It is entertaining reading incoherent illogical nonsense from Proggers complaining about one and not the other.

Did I miss how the pensions were to be paid for?

It seems to me we'd have to tax the few workers we have at a 100% tax rate, if people live to be 80 and only work 30 years.

The number of jobs that can be done at home seems overestimated too.

I would certainly buy the idea that there's less driving because fewer people can afford a car.

I really hope this scenario doesn't come to pass. It's just a continuation of the already destructive trend of infantilization that plagues modern young adults.

This model will not be able to work because liberals will outlaw cheap housing and low wage jobs to protect us from the horrors of affordable living in cities. Blue staters will continue to ruin big cities. Everyone will leave those cities for up and coming cities where opportunity is strong. But then Blue state policies will arrive a generation after and ruin those too, and the blue locusts will have to find a new host to feed upon.

Unless you are referring to a cardboard shack or tent in a park, Mom's house or couch surfing, what "cheap housing" do we have in the US?

I am also not counting paying more than half your take-home pay as cheap. Maybe you would.

Heard Ed Rendel talk about the need to invest in infrastructure and he pointed out the disconnect between the increase in number of vehicles and miles traveled.

Basically, the highways we have today were more than 90% defined in the 50s and 60s by central planners as part of the redefining of highway transportation initiated by Eisenhower. The Interstate system was specified and laid out based on projected growth and highway needs, with the US and State highways demoted or promoted as the feeders to the Interstates, or to fill in the areas without Interstate coverage for lack of growth. I remember the highway maps in the 50s and 60s showing the proposed Interstates and new US highways and seeing them constructed as we traveled, or build in our region.

So, the total number of lane miles is the measure of the capacity of the roads and highways. The total for all classes has increased only 8% from 1980 to 2010, the figure Rendel cited. That is misleading because urban Interstate has been widened substantially with some miles added (especially in the early 80s to finish the 1960 plan). Urban Interstate has increased 91%, and total urban has increased 76%. On the other hand, rural lane miles has decreased as rural areas became urban, by about 5%, but that is a lot because in 1980, 80% of lane miles were rural, but today its only 70%.

So, with the vehicle lane miles less than doubled in urban areas, but unchanged in rural, over three decades, the number of vehicle miles has more than doubled, with Interstate traffic tripled. Urban Interstate lanes increased 91%, urban Interstate vehicle miles up 196%, rural Interstate lanes down 5%, rural Interstate vehicle miles up 80%. The differences aren't as great for the other types of roads, but the roads are definitely used significantly more while investment in the roads has declined as a portion of the economy.

Given the highway building and maintenance is determined largely by the gas and other transportation taxes, the investment in highways has been restricted as a conservative policy at both the Federal and State level. The revenue to fund roads and highways is lower in real terms over the past decade than in the 80s or 90s.

I would argue that reducing the use of cars is a conservative policy decision, or unintended consequence, based on the drive to cut taxes no matter the consequences.

In fact, just the other day, a Republican member of Congress proposed cutting the Federal gas tax which is too low at 18 cents, and is dwarfed by the fall in gas prices finally happening as big oil can no longer hold back the oil production surge since Obama took office.

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