Category Archives: Futurism

The Futurist Fallacy

As I occasionally write about the future in this blog, I try to keep in mind what I will call “The Futurist Fallacy” –   In the future, everyone will live and behave like  the futurist does today.

Contrast this with William Gibson’s quote: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”, which he is reported to have first said this in an interview on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993).

Both of these may hold provided that the futurist is not in fact behaving the way future will turn out. Of course every good futurist will try to behave in a future-oriented way, trying to be cutting edge with technologies and lifestyles. Many of those will however turn out to be techno-evolutionary dead ends.

 

 

Imagine: A World Where Nobody Owns Their Own Car – Eric Jaffe – The Atlantic Cities

Eric Jaffe at Atlantic Cities writes: Imagine: A World Where Nobody Owns Their Own Car :

“Skeptics have also charged that autonomous cars will disrupt any city-based travel models, since people freed from the need to drive will move even farther away from the core. That might be true for people who own their autonomous cars, says University of Minnesota transport scholar David Levinson, but a strong sharing system could promote the opposite movement. “If you’re paying for the car by the minute, then you’re not going to want to move farther out,” says Levinson. “You’re going to want to move closer in.”

Levinson says SAV service that offers convenient on-demand trips gives people a much greater incentive to rely on that system — and a much smaller incentive to take the unnecessary trips often made by private cars. It’s a recipe for the type of multi-modal lifestyle change only possible right now in places like Manhattan. Transit for essential daily trips, cabs (or other alternatives based on the type of trip) for the rest.”

The big market question is when this world will begin to emerge. Levinson subscribes to a timeline in which autonomous cars enter the luxury market in 2020, the technology trickles down into the affordable mid-level range over the next several years, and by 2030 every [edit: NEW] car on the road is driverless. (Other cars would be banned a decade later.) Since car- and ride-sharing operations tend to rely on smaller cars, that would peg SAV networks closer to 2030 — about 16 years from now.

“It’s not that far away anymore,” says Levinson. “But 16 years ago was 1998, and Google hadn’t been invented. So it’s a short time and it’s a long time.”

Structural errors in forecasting

Forecasting is notoriously bad.

S-Curve and the Danger of Extrapolation (from The Transportation Experience, Second Edition, (Garrison and Levinson (2014)).
S-Curve and the Danger of Extrapolation (from The Transportation Experience, Second Edition, (Garrison and Levinson (2014)).

There are many reasons for this, but one is structural, failure to understand the life-cycle dynamics.  The reason for overshoot and undershoot can be understood by visiting the S-curve. Assumed forecasts are made by extrapolating previous results, which is how many businesses and investors and government agencies operate, as shown in the figure. In early years (Birthing and Early Growth) the rate of growth each year is greater than the previous year. Someone extrapolating from history will undershoot actual growth. But in late growth and maturity, growth is slower than the previous year. Someone extrapolating from history will overshoot actual growth.

Extrapolation models are common in transportation, see e.g. Angie Schmitt’s Transpo Agencies Are Terrible at Predicting Traffic Levels. These are used for statewide modeling in many places. Such forecasting methods (assume growth continues at a fixed percent) is embedded in some textbooks, especially for instance, in pavement design.

Combined traffic projections from state and regional transportation agencies (the colored lines) have been wildly off the mark (the black line shows real traffic levels) for more than a decade. Image: SSTI
Combined traffic projections from state and regional transportation agencies (the colored lines) have been wildly off the mark (the black line shows real traffic levels) for more than a decade. Image: SSTI

Urban transportation planning models are better in some ways, in that they include multiple factors. Unfortunately, these models are based on rates at a single point in time. Thus they assume the function that describes the behavior is fixed, only exogenous (input) factors such as demographics, land use, networks, and policies are allowed to vary. Even when multiple years of data are available, such models are typically only estimated on the most recent survey, rather than on trends or changes. The underlying behavior is not permitted to change, only what it responds to. Yet we now have evidence that some underlying preferences do change over time. It’s not simply a matter of getting the demographics or incomes correct. For instance from the 1960s to the 1990s female labor force participation increased. Thus the number of work trips and non-work trips (substituting out-of-home for in-home production) both increased in that period. But that increase has played itself out. Thus the increases it was associated with have peaked. This reflected changing preferences. While hindsight is 20/20, I don’t know if underlying preferences can be modeled accurately prospectively (I am doubtful), but I do know failure to account for them will lead to model inaccuracies.

What changes are going on now that are not considered in travel demand forecasting? A brief (and very incomplete) list below:

  • Vehicle technology shifts (driverless vehicles)
  • Preference shifts among young travelers
  • Changing driver licensing requirements
  • Vehicle ownership vs on-demand vehicle rental (car “sharing”)
  • Telecommunication increasing substitution for work, shop, and social travel
  • Telecommunication complementarity for work, shop, and social travel

None of this is easy to model, certainly not within the existing framework of urban transportation planning models, even more modern activity-based models. In many ways it is easier to do macroscopic than microscopic forecasting. The question is, if some kinds of forecasting are impossible (I can forecast traffic pretty accurately two weeks from today, but not the first Tuesday of 2044), why do we do it? Is there a human-need to fill the void of future uncertainty with authoritative assertions?

Speculating about the future is useful, it opens up pathways. Developing scenarios is useful, it challenges assumptions. Thinking about the lifecycle process and markets helps frame the possible, the plausible, and the likely. Studying history (and past forecasting methods and errors) provides but humility and insight. Visions (and alternative competing visions) help establish what we want. Developing a communal hallucination can organize individual activities to become the ideal (or nightmarish) self-fulfilling or self-negating forecast.  Planning needs more methods for thinking about the future than single point forecasting.

The end of traffic in America: A Q&A with transportation expert David Levinson

A transcript of my podcast with Jim Pethokoukis is now up: The end of traffic in America: A Q&A with transportation expert David Levinson.

By the year 2030, most Americans may only head into the office a few days a week, lots of urban skyscrapers will have been converted into apartments, suburban land prices will have declined, and we’ll be “driving” — or at least sitting in autonomous cars — way less. Goodbye to traffic congestion.

That’s a bit of the possible future sketched out in a recent blog post – “What happened to traffic?”– by transportation expert David Levinson of the University of Minnesota and author of the Transportationist blog. I chatted with Prof. Levinson about his fascinating speculation for my Ricochet Money & Politics podcast.

The End of Driving — Money and Politics Podcast

My podcast on the Ricochet Podcast: Money and Politics with Jim Pethokoukis: Episode 21: The End of Driving is now up

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sf.traffic.0930

Direct link to MP3 file

It’s not just driverless cars. In the latest Ricochet Money & Politics podcast, economist, transportation expert, and blogger David Levinsonargues traffic is declining and will continue to decline dramatically in the coming decades. And that decline is not only the result of some deeper economic and technological trends, but will itself cause a radical restructuring of American society.

What happened to traffic? — The Transportationist

Reactions to `What happened to traffic’

Recently I wrote a blogpost: What happened to traffic? which, for a few days, increased traffic on my site 10-fold. So asking the same question, with an appendage “What happened to traffic on my website” I wonder, why did this happen? Well the short answer is that it was linked to by the curators of the blogosphere.

Reihan Salam is as far as I can tell, a regular reader and occasional linker. But then Tyler Cowen of the well-read blog Marginal Revolution picked it up and traffic exploded. Streetsblog also picked it up separately (I am guessing they do not read National Review Online). It expanded from there.

I got asked to do two podcasts (Asymcar with Horace Dediu and Jim Zellmer and Ricochet with Jim Pethokoukis), and two radio shows (Larry Elder on KABC (podcast behind a paywall), and KFWB NewsTalk 980).

Some key links discussing the post and the ideas therein are listed below:

There seemed to be a lot of attention to the changing nature of work as the driver. I did spend a couple of paragraphs on that, and the linkers tended to pick up on the issue. I am surprised that so many people (commenters etc.) think leaving the full-time workforce at age 60 is an unreasonable prediction, I thought that early retirement was a highly likely outcome, since most older workers will not be as up on current technologies as younger folks, and training will have less return on investment. In many countries, grandparents help with childcare in their 50s and 60s. There was also some pushback on “office workers” working “only” 4 hours from home. I should have phrased it as getting credit for 4 hours of paid work from home, obviously the amount of work that people actually do and what they get paid for has only a loose correlation.

Some people were sad with the scenario, thinking it meant decline. I don’t think it means decline, though there will certainly be shifts. (I do expect twenty-somethings will probably be worse off economically in this world where employers can pay people like interns rather than regular employees for a longer period. I am observing this among graduate students. But they will still have computers, internet, mobile phones and large screen TVs, and will have deferred having children and mortgages and maybe cars.)

My sense is that if population roughly levels out, and technology advances, average (mean) incomes should rise. The distribution of incomes is a more difficult question, but this feels like a macro-economic cyclical problem, which depends in part on how many redistributionist policies there are, whether revolutions redistribute property, the relative scarcity of capital and labor (and thus the returns to capital vs. labor), and items like that as well as the functioning of the market. These items are certainly well-beyond the scope of a travel demand forecast.

How you pay for a workforce that is reduced in size, and especially for retirees, is a topic I did not address (also beyond my scope … I suppose I should pretend to be an expert on everything.). My short answer, for the short-term, is immigrants (though of course that would create more traffic, but the nature of work may be very different nevertheless, so it might not be peak-period traffic).

(General comment: If I knew the post would be popular, I would have been more careful writing it. If I were careful writing it, it probably wouldn’t have been so popular. Find the equilibrium).

David Levinson’s Vision of the Future

Reihan Salam at NRO conducts an exegesis, where he deconstructs and comments on my earlier post at: David Levinson’s Vision of the Future :

“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 …”

My favorite bit: “I find Levinson’s vision of the future refreshingly unromantic.” I am going to add that to my bio.

What happened to traffic?

Dateline: Minneapolis, November 4, 2030

Remember traffic? It was only 30 years ago that people were complaining about getting stuck in traffic. But traffic peaked in the early part of the Century, and has fallen ever since. A few observers picked this up early, but many transportation agencies were in denial. At the time, most analysts saw only two possible futures:

  • Future 1: Per capita vehicle travel resumes an upward path. This forecast was the proverbial ostrich with its sand-encased head.
  • Future 2: Per capita vehicle travel remains flat but traffic grows with population. Future 2 was already causing concerns as it created pressures on revenues (which were then dependent on falling gas tax revenue), yet DOTs still claimed needs for new construction and expansion of existing roadways despite overall falling demand. Some argued that though demand was falling on average, it wasn’t falling everywhere. And there were still unsolved problems that don’t go away just because travel isn’t increasing.
  • No one in power foresaw what actually happened.

  • Future 3: 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). Just look at this picture of demand for mail:

DeadLetter

Why did traffic fall off a cliff?

Workers no longer “go” to work 6 days a week. Workers got Saturday off in the mid-20th Century. Getting every-other Friday off (the 5/4 schedule) became standard by 2015, establishing the 3-day weekend every other week as the norm. By 2020, this was every weekend, as people moved to a 9 hour day, 4 days per week at the office, and the other 4 hours were “at home” work – checking email on the long weekend, erasing once strict separation of home and work. By 2025 taking every-other Monday off (the 4/3 schedule) was established in most large employers. Today we are seeing half-days on Wednesdays for many office workers, with only Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Thursdays as interactive collaboration days. The “flipped” office, where people were expected to do “work” at home on their own computers, and only show up for meetings is now standard.

The empty office buildings across the landscape led to the famous Skyscraper Crash, the Real Estate Office – fueled recession of 2021. Many of those empty buildings were converted to apartments, as we had about twice as much office space as we needed with the new work arrangements. Some cities were virtually abandoned by business in this process. This helped undercut new residential construction in the suburbs, and suburban land prices fell, attracting lower income immigrants, who subdivided large tract mansions into housing for large extended families, and leading to a measurable “white-flight” back to the center city. So while the suburbs were now less expensive, some actually gained population. Lower income residents still own cars, but not as many, and many a 2 and 3-car garage is being transformed into a workshop or small store.

Shorter careers are also the norm now, almost half the population doesn’t enter the regular workforce until 30, and most leave by 60. The workforce has continued its drop as technology-enabled worker productivity reduces the value of older workers. Firms also are not interested in paying for training, so most people now go through a 10-year unpaid internship while simultaneously attending school online and engaging other pursuits on a more or less random schedule.

Shoppers no longer “go” to shop, but order online, or let ‘bots and virtual agents order for them, especially for regular stocks like paper towels, napkins, and Spam. And then they let most goods get delivered. With less window shopping and a decline in advertising, the culture became less materialistic, going shopping as activity continues its long 30 year drop, and consumption of material goods has declined with it. Internet Ad-blockers, Netflix, and other time-shifting technologies made ads decline (though not disappear, many companies now want to coat road surfaces with new digital ad-delivery technology – a proposal that is splitting the Coalition Government in a few states), and desperate DOTs are looking favorably on sponsored roads).

Widespread car-sharing programs made it possible for many people, especially in cities, to let go of ownership of their cars. Instead of having a very low marginal cost for a trip, now there is a higher cost per trip, making people think twice, and drive less.

More urban living, much of it in abandoned and remodeled office buildings, reduced the distances people needed to travel. Many 20-somethings live in these windowless, but well-connected, skyscraper dorms, while artists have begun to occupy and see inspiration in the detritus of the late 20th century skyway network. Cities began to encourage accessory housing, and conversion of garages to apartments.

In the early 2020s, the two-decade long decline in Gas Tax revenue due both to declining demand and increasing electrification of the fleet finally enabled the push for mileage fees. The Green-Libertarian Coalition Government taking office in 2025 enacted a number of reforms to get the federal government out of local transportation, and encourage states to toll their highways. While gas taxes were eliminated, refinery taxes were implemented. The government also put in place carbon and other externality taxes to replace income taxes. More importantly, agencies implemented off-peak discounts, with higher peak prices. Trips that were not urgent at rush hour on Tuesday, Wednesday, and especially the very busy Thursday afternoon in the summertime turned out not to be particularly urgent at all, and total travel dropped more.

By 2025, some cities began to outright ban cars within core areas. Since most residents did not own cars, this became an easy political sell. In those cities, walking, bike, scooter, and bus use soared. This affected not only residents, but anyone going to the city. Cars remain popular for trips outside of cities, but there are fewer cars, fewer car trips per resident, and fewer non-city residents.

Most areas built before 1950 in the US (now housing roughly one-third of the US population) saw significantly improved transit service, with real-time information about arrivals and schedules. With more urban residents and fewer cars, the demand for transit picked up. Agencies were able to put on more buses with the uptick in demand, further encouraging bus use and people abandoning their cars, and now bus-powered urban transit agencies (some of which have a few legacy rail lines) are one of the few profitable branches of government. New autonomous buses have reduced labor costs significantly, and electric power has dropped fuel costs. Transit organizations are now seeing ridership levels they last saw in the 1950s.

Decentralized manufacturing, including 3-D printing on-demand, has begun to diminish long-distance shipping of many goods, which can now be made locally.

Where will the car go? Some warn that the new generation of inexpensive, electrically powered robo-cars will make travel more attractive, and reverse the three decade slide in driving. Others foresee that new light-weight robo-copters will make roads obsolete, and people will just take off from their roofs, and go anywhere they want. Many also suggest that living in cities will lose its desirability with newly low cost housing available in rural areas. But no one thinks congestion is coming back, time is too short to waste it sitting in traffic.

Notes:

  1. Kaiser Family Foundation says 39% of US workers are “white collar”. While this doesn’t track perfectly with office workers (since some blue collar workers are clerical and can telework, and some professionals (e.g. doctors) are paid for their face time), we will go with that for now. That means we lost 23% of work trips.

    White collar workers are those who self-identify as professionals or managers. Blue collar workers are those who self-identify as assistants and clerical workers, technicians and repair workers, artists and entertainers, service workers, laborers, salespersons, operators, skilled trade workers, assemblers, or former military.

  2. Just like Saturday used to be a regular workday for most people, now many work 4/5 plans. There are many combinations, almost all of which reduce the amount of peak hour travel.
  3. Hipsters began to leave the city, and moved to the now ironic suburbs among the working class immigrants.

Catalyst: The future of transportation

CTS Catalyst summarizes some of my recent clips from The Week.

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Levinson predicts improved accessibility, more real-time transportation data, and cleaner cities.

What does the future hold for transportation? University of Minnesota civil engineering professor David Levinson shared his thoughts as part of a panel of transportation experts in a series of videos from The Week magazine. Some highlights from Levinson’s predictions are below.

Urban mobility in 10 years

Over the next 10 years, Levinson predicts the emergence of driverless cars on the road, more car sharing and bike sharing programs, and more real-time information about buses and traffic congestion. “The future is already out there in pieces, but it will be much more systematically deployed in 10 years,” he says.

He also predicts that cities will be cleaner, with more electric cars and lower levels of tailpipe emissions, even for transit vehicles and trucks. “Cities will be more pleasant places to live,” he says.

Mobility versus accessibility

“We’ll need to think about transportation not as providing mobility but providing accessibility,” Levinson says. “It’s not just how fast we move on the network, but about how many things we can reach.” According to Levinson, connecting people to the places they want to go is not only a transportation issue, but also a land-use issue.

The challenge, Levinson says, is that these issues are often governed by different organizations. “Land use is generally locally managed, and transportation is funded at least in part by the federal and state government…They have different objectives,” he says. Improvements in accessibility will require better coordination and alignment of these transportation and land-use objectives.

The role of data

According to Levinson, accurate and reliable transportation data are and will continue to be important because they can provide real-time information to help travelers plan in real-time. And although data are already being used to provide information to drivers, transit users, and flyers, there are still areas where data are incomplete—such as for travel time on urban arterials.

“We’re in process,” Levinson said. “We’re going to be doing a lot better in five years than we are today, and we’re doing a lot better today than we were five years ago. But we’re not there yet in terms of being able to fully exploit the information that’s out there.”

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