Commuting in 2050

How Americans can avoid spending their mornings stuck in gridlock traffic. 

Ryan Giunta

Former Transform Transportation, Associate, PIRG

It’s 2022 but in the United States we still commute to work like it’s the 1990s. Before the pandemic, many commuters would spend hours every day stuck in traffic because the vast majority of Americans still rely on cars to get to work. But even worse than traffic, the emissions from these vehicles are a serious problem for our health and our climate. 

Instead of talking about the short-term changes to our transportation system that we know we need, I want to look ahead and imagine what our daily commute could look like 30 years from now. Over the past few years, we have seen that our economic system can be reorganized to incorporate individuals working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some industries, working from home will likely continue. However, it is also likely that many other industries will return to in-person work once it’s safe to do so. As a result it’s important to consider how people will choose to travel to and from work in the years to come. 

It’s impossible to predict the new groundbreaking technologies that will be created between now and 2050. Instead, I’ll focus on what we already know is possible today or will be possible in the near future. 

The first piece of technology that has already been developed and will likely be implemented in more areas over the next few decades is the gondola. We already know that aerial tramways being used for transportation is possible: the Cable A system expected to open in 2025 that will serve as a commuting vehicle for Parisians serves as proof. It may seem odd to imagine commuting to work using what most people consider a type of  ski lift, but when you pause to think about it, gondolas check a lot of the boxes for what we are looking for in a form of transportation. Not only can they be fully powered by electricity, but they also have the potential to be much safer and more time efficient than driving in a car. 

Similar to trains or subways, gondola cars are on a set path which significantly reduces the chance for human errors that result in crashes and injuries. In addition, unlike our current transportation system, if done right, gondolas won’t get stuck in traffic. These aerial tramways will not have to deal with obstacles on the ground therefore reducing the chances of facing the types of delays that individual commuters constantly experience on their morning commutes today. Based on these criteria, the average commuter in 2050 may prefer to take a gondola than drive their car to work. 

Similarly to how the infrastructure in Paris may be giving us a glimpse into the future of transportation, China’s high speed rail system connecting its major cities allows us to imagine another potential aspect of our transportation future. 

The rail system takes advantage of highly advanced technology that allows trains to operate autonomously and reach top speeds of 217-miles per hour. The trains’ ability to travel at super high speeds have led to significantly decreased commute times and increased the interconnectivity of the nation. Over the next few decades, we can only imagine how these systems will become safer, faster and more efficient making it clear that they are a key commuting tool of the future. 

We can’t think about what commuting in 2050 could look like without including the increased usage of electric vehicles (EVs). While EVs currently make up less than 5% of vehicles on the road, over the next two decades they are expected to account for 58% of new car sales globally and make up about a third of all cars on the road by 2040. 

Electric vehicles have taken major strides over the previous decade by increasing their range and performance and have become better supported through improved charging infrastructure. According to a 2020 survey,  nearly 50% of respondents stated that they would consider purchasing an EV as their next vehicle if they knew that they would have sufficient access to charging stations. As battery technology improves and supporting infrastructure, such as charging stations and priority parking, continue to be spread throughout the U.S., electric vehicles will become increasingly popular compared to their fossil fuel-powered counterparts. 

Each of the transportation methods previously mentioned as potential pillars of our future commute are centered around technological advancements, yet this is not the only tool that we can utilize to reimagine commuting in 2050. Taking advantage of active mobility and sustainable community design will be another key to transforming our future transportation system.  Intelligently designed communities supported with infrastructure that encourages active mobility will create the opportunity for people to walk and bike around cities, towns and the countryside.

In some areas we have already begun to create spaces where people prefer to walk or bike when possible. Take the Highline in New York City for example. The walking path not only serves as the backdrop for scenic strolls, but also offers New Yorkers a fast and convenient way to commute to work. When spaces are created that not only make pedestrians feel safe but also enjoy their time walking, they are more likely to choose active mobility as an alternative to driving or taking public transportation. As we continue to redesign portions of our cities we should take advantage of creating multi-use paths and complete streets that enable active mobility. 

Over the next 30 years, we have the opportunity to transform our transportation system. It’s important that we know what we want to achieve. Is our goal for commuters to be stuck in gridlock and polluting the air each morning as we have for decades, or should we look to create a transportation future that gives commuters numerous affordable and sustainable options to get themselves to work? If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that time moves faster than you think. The year 2050 is around the corner so it is imperative that we begin laying the groundwork for our reimagined transportation system and morning commutes. 


Image: Dan RO, cc


Ryan Giunta

Former Transform Transportation, Associate, PIRG

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