In the post-war 1950s, peace and quiet and a place to park that new Chevy—anyone who was anyone had a new Chevy—had an obvious appeal. We wanted space. We wanted picket-fenced lawns for our dogs and guest bedrooms for our grandparents. The suburbs generously obliged.
But we didn’t consider the commutes: those excruciating journeys to the office that left us more likely to gain weight, divorce our spouses and, generally, be unhappy. Nor did we think of all the mileage those commutes would put on our new Chevys. It was the 50s, so who could’ve known that putting millions of cars on the road each day, with no emissions regulations to speak of, might not be the best thing for the environment?
Nevertheless, an entire generation of baby boomers spurred half a century of relentless growth that made suburbs—and their cousin, the modern commute—a staple of American life.
But thankfully, things are looking up. The 21st-century economy is changing where and how we choose to live and work. At the same time, the Internet’s shifting its disruptive focus from iPhones to engines, with futuristic cars and trains that appear poised to transform the commute’s impact on people, the economy, and the environment.
It goes back to cities. Just as the baby boomers formed the suburban generation, Gen Xers and their millennial counterparts are rethinking America’s urban landscapes. Today, more than a third of the U.S. population lives in a city—a bigger share than at any point since the dawn of suburbia in 1950. And within this new generation of urbanites, you’ll find three distinct types of commuters, all of whom will see technology reshape the way they get to work: The Driver, The Rider, and the Super Commuter.
1. The Driver: The Internet of Cars
Cars are still the dominant commuting paradigm in America. More than 90 percent of Americans still drive to work. Yet all these drivers still suffer the same traffic nightmares as their suburban forefathers. But that may change with the arrival of the connected car, which offers a nearer-term antidote than the more widely-known driverless car.
Instead of driving themselves, connected cars talk to each other—and to roadside infrastructure like streetlights and road signs—through wireless sensors that automatically transmit signals about their position and velocity. They’ll tell their human drivers if there’s an accident coming around the bend or that a car’s too close to another up ahead and it’s probably worth hanging back. They’ll also talk to the traffic light, which might turn green for you if you’re the only car at the intersection.
After a $22 million pilot project that featured 2,800 connected vehicles navigating through Ann Arbor, auto industry experts have called this emerging ‘Internet of Cars’ the most powerful innovation in the industry since the invention of the car itself. They believe it has the opportunity to fundamentally reshape driving patterns and create huge gains for the economy and the environment.
It’s not hard to see why. Data suggests that the evening rush hour is the most dangerous time to drive, and connected cars could save commuters countless hours—and lives—in avoided car crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that connected cars could reduce “non-impaired crash scenarios” by 80 percent. With car crashes killing almost 33,000 people each year and sending another 2.2 million to the emergency room, the emerging technology could prevent a staggering loss of life and potential.
2. The Rider: The Reverse Commute
As city populations swell and real estate prices continue to soar, the cities are expanding their footprint into the suburbs, blurring what used to be a tidy division. While the suburbs were once “bedroom communities to city employment centers,” just 55% of all urban jobs are found within 10 miles of a traditional downtown, according to the Brookings Institute.
In a sense, the commute has reversed itself. As jobs have scattered outward from the city, the non-car-owning city dweller now has to rely on methods other than walking to work. Bike shares have taken the nation by storm and on-demand car services like Uber and Lyft have started to enter the market. But most powerfully, in 2013, The Rider turned more frequently to traditional public transportation than in any year since 1946.
Achieving that ridership record was no accident. Since 1995, federal and state governments have combined to more than double their funding for public transportation from $9.2 billion to $23 billion in 2010. And over the same time, public transportation ridership has grown 37 percent.
For the governments, public transportation has proven to be a valuable investment: Every dollar invested in public transportation generates approximately $4 in return through new jobs, like bus and subway drivers, and local business growth as people shuttle more seamlessly throughout the city.
But for The Rider, that surge of investment has helped bring American public transportation into the 21st century. Smart transit cards and GPS systems that use big data help the city dispatch buses and subways to more frequently, and more comfortably, get commuters to work on time. New light rail routes are sprouting up in budding urban centers from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis. And updated environmentally-friendly buses have taken the roads, with 35 percent of all public buses nationwide now running on alternative fuel from electric energy to natural gas.
3. The Super Commuter: The Early Adopter
The outliers of today’s commuters are the Super Commuters. Though they work in the city like the others, they live hours away, often in other cities, and commute into the office once or twice a week.
Some of them are mid-career workers who didn’t want to uproot their families when they found better work in a new city. Others are the early adopters of the 21st century workplace, who see the physical office as a dinosaur of an earlier professional era and seize on the opportunity to telecommute.
As they see it, Super Commuters found the job they want in the city where it’s available without sacrificing the life they want in a different one. But because the power of face-to-face interaction with the boss has yet to go extinct, they make the multi-hour journey into the office when they must.
For now these long-distance commuters represent between 3 and 10 percent of the overall workforce, but between 2002 and 2009, Super Commuters doubled between Boston and New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Dallas and Houston. Apart from the numbers, Super Commuting has become enough of a trend to spawn its own dating guidebook: Super Commuter Couples, with the tagline “Staying together when a job keeps you apart.”
But for Super Commuting to catch on, it will depend on the continued reinvigoration of the American railroad. Long considered a dying form of travel in the U.S., Amtrak set an all-time record last year with 31.6 million riders. With 90 percent of all riders traveling between the 100 biggest metropolitan regions, it’s increasingly seen as the most efficient—and pleasant—mode of mid-range travel for commuters between cities.
Most importantly, routes less than 400 miles—which include all of today’s Super Commuter routes—are the most profitable for Amtrak, which was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2001. In recent years, those promising routes are seeing an influx of investment to update the tracks with faster trains equipped with greener and safer technology.
In 2010, Amtrak awarded a $466 million contract for 70 new electric locomotives for use along the Northeastern Corridor—which captures several Super Commutes—to replace 25-to-35 year old engines. The modernized power, manufactured by Siemens, is helping Amtrak to enhance mobility and efficiency and will improve on-time performance. And earlier this year, Siemens was also selected to provide 32 diesel-electric locomotives—the train version of hybrid cars— to update Midwest and West Coast routes enabling more efficient rail service for passengers.
For the Super Commuters of today, America’s newfound commitment to the passenger rail is going to make their commutes easier, faster, and better for the environment. And if they turn out to just be the early adopters—with many more of us following suit in a few short decades—these 21st century transportation innovations are going to be just the beginning.