The Future of Work: Commuting without cars

Credit: Steven Hughes

The shift away from automobiles will transform cities—and how we get to the office

What if Elon Musk, Uber and Boeing are wrong? All three predict that the future of commuting revolves around a personal vehicle: Musk dreams of underground tubes bypassing gridlock, autonomous cars are Uber’s focus, and Boeing sees air taxis flying over street traffic.

“Those ideas assume we just want more of the same–more cars,” says Todd Litman, head of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent public transportation research group. “But I don’t think that’s the case.”

To understand future needs, transportation experts use demographic and social trends–things like a desire for more walkability, smaller families, tech-savvy seniors and minimalist millennials. All point to fewer cars on the road. That changes everything. Right now, the typical community dedicates 30 percent of its land base to the car: roads, parking spots, intersections.

“The demand for road space is going to drop like a rock,” says Gordon Lovegrove, principal investigator with the Sustainable Transport Safety Research Laboratory at UBC Okanagan. Car-focused land use will shrink by 50 percent, reckons the associate professor of engineering. Housing and businesses will fill the unused space. High-speed trains and buses will link cities and suburbs. And everyone will share vehicles–whether it’s electric scooters or autonomous cars–to get around town.

“We have an opportunity to use technology to make urban living better,” Litman says. “But to get there, we need a big shift in policy. We need to move away from car-first policies to a diverse, responsive and efficient transportation system.” Here’s what the city of tomorrow might look like.


Thanks to high-speed hydrogen-fuel cell trains, it’s easy for remote workers in Nanaimo to visit the office in Victoria a couple of times a week.


In response to manufacturing fleeing high land prices in the city, TransLink shifts from a downtown-focused strategy to a spider web network. Workers take the SkyTrain from Coquitlam to Surrey without going through Vancouver first.


Need to go a few kilometres? Hop on an electric scooter, an e-bike or the pedal kind, or hail a ride-share. All make it easy to get around quickly without owning a car or waiting for a taxi.


With fewer cars, developers reclaim road space and parking lots to build more housing. Much of this will happen in downtown areas. Combined with zoning shifts away from single-family houses in favour of higher density, the result is more people living within walking distance of work.


Automation hits commercial transportation hard. Robots take over for long-haul semi-trailer drivers, with in-city deliveries following soon.


Rather than subsidize parking spaces, employers pay for staff bus passes, cover e-scooter subscriptions, chip in for bikes or offer a stipend for walkers.


An app gives all the options for getting from one place to another–and pays for the trip, too. Such software is already in play in some Asian and Nordic countries.