In the ongoing pursuit of effective transportation, it’s often forgotten that mobility optimizes at zero — which is to say, the absolute best we can do to make transportation effective is to make it unnecessary.
What’s also forgotten is just how prominently the transportation constraints of yesteryear factored into telecommuting as a concept. Formalized in the 1970s by NASA engineer Jack Nilles, remote work seemed destined for prominence as the U.S. unwrapped the Clean Air Act and tumbled into the OPEC oil crisis. Crucially, Nilles’ in-depth examination of telecommuting feasibility occurred prior to consumer-grade internet — the offspring of which has since produced a comprehensive overlap between the means of production at a job site and the personal property of a white collar laborer.
Let there be no doubt as to the superiority of remote work as a mobility solution: with zero infrastructure cost to the public, zero speculation on unproven tech and near-zero development time, communities experience immediate cost savings, emissions reductions and productivity gains.
Remote work may in fact stand as the only mobility tool to increase personal freedom while simultaneously decreasing personal consumption. As such, it plants the seed for a more complicated discussion: in the world of transportation, consumption is an assumption.
Self-driving tech regards the daily commute among its lowest-hanging fruit, yet the promise of autonomous cars leans on the very inefficiencies made obsolete by remote work. If there are no huddled masses puttering down the highways in unison, slaving away at the wheel and crashing into each other, then there are no optimizations to be had. By extension, if the only vehicle trips remaining are recreational in nature and unpredictable in schedule, driverless tech will find itself with a problem more difficult to solve and a public less interested in solving it.
Light rail, street cars and BRT fare even worse in a world embracing the telecommute. The game of mass transit is in its name: mass. Public transportation relies on large swaths of passengers needing to move from one high-density area to another, preferably around a consistent time of day. Remote employees negatively impact all of those variables, and at critical mass, the idea of peak hours disappears entirely. Regardless of how a city funds its public transit, sustaining service to a sporadic population on splintered travel schedules would present a gargantuan roadblock.
Even the mildest of pro-mobility recipes struggles to justify itself in the face of remote work. Congestion pricing has seen success as a mitigator of unwanted traffic, but at some point, traffic is necessary for the program to work. Taking a significant chunk of commuters off the road and into their home offices would create a tipping point in remaining drivers’ financial obligations — a regressive and unsustainable “commuter penalty” that would undoubtedly have to be reassessed as a road maintenance tax for all residents. Considering the U.S. is currently using roads more than ever, but hasn’t increased the gas tax in a quarter-century, one can only wish the best of luck to any politician tasked with such an overhaul.
Path dependency has plagued road and rail infrastructure since the very beginning, but if the underwhelming adoption of remote work indicates anything, it is that people yearn to suffer constraints for the sake of predictability. If a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage trumps a blue sky over every roof, the future of transportation may forever be a faster horse.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.