For a few days every year—those magical chunks of time off that contain Thanksgiving and Christmas—tens of millions of Americans are homeward bound. They’re hailing cabs, weathering nightmarish TSA lines, cramming into the middle seat between the guy with the chip-stained t-shirt and the mom with the baby whose mouth is already starting to contort in rage behind that pacifier. They’re reading the paper on Amtrak. They’re on road trips where the destination is not a storied landmark or a promising new city, but some iteration of Home.
Holiday travel is a stereotypically cultural touchstone; the heading-home-for-the-holidays film is a genre unto itself. But will it always be? Might technology, better planning, and new modes of transportation transform the future of going home for Thanksgiving? Christmas? Let’s fast-forward to the still-imaginable future. Say, 2050. To begin, let’s consider: How will humans be getting around in general?
Seeing as how physicists have nixed teleportation, the answer is, of course, a big fat ‘it depends.’ Peak oil might make plane travel less feasible for the non-wealthy, and skyrocketing populations and bad transit policy could turn highways into congested nightmare tubes. But a network of buses and trains could arise in its place—otherwise we might all just be left telecommuting to the holidays on Skype.
In the Future, Evolved Transit Hubs Will Take Us Home
Let’s start out with optimism. The American Public Transportation Association’s 2008 report, TransitVision 2050, suggests that “by 2050, more than 70 percent of the nation’s population growth and an even higher percentage of its economic growth are concentrated in ten extended metropolitan regions.” It says that suburbs will cluster in with the cities, and brand new public transportation networks will link them up. In 2050, “new regional approaches and institutions have arisen to facilitate commerce and personal mobility,” the report says.
In other words, the majority of Americans would have access to mass transit options for their holiday commute. Trains that run on clean energy would link up seamlessly to buses and parking hubs and biking infrastructure. In this 2050, you might take a bus to the high-speed rail station, zip through a few cities, get off, and then ride the light rail to your folks’ town.
If, that is—and here comes the report’s most massive caveat—governments manage to both address widespread public transit budget shortfalls and buckle down to do some long-term planning. Transit infrastructure projects are perennially underfunded, while the traveling population is booming.
Or Be Forever Stuck in Traffic
MIT researchers fear that gridlocked future in their report, “VISION 2050: An Integrated National Transportation System.” The study finds that “total transportation volume might increase more than triple between today and the year 2050. Meanwhile, transportation congestion is growing worse and translates into $75 billion in lost productivity each year. Our transportation system will not be capable of handling such a staggering increase in demand without adopting radically different approaches.”
And APTA agrees: “Left unaddressed, the growth trends within these mega-regions [will result] in unimaginable highway congestion, overcrowded public transportation systems and airports, and loss of open space.”
In other words, unless there’s some fairly radical change, it looks like holiday travel is destined to be even more nightmarish than it already is—with people stuck in traffic on crumbling interstates, languishing for hours on choked, never-moving roadways. And those reports are warning of everyday over-congestion—holiday traffic would be full-on apocalyptic. Not convinced? Let’s do a quick thought experiment, whipped up using the data from the reports:
Imagine your typical highway commute now. Now imagine it three times as congested. Also imagine that there are more frequent accidents and more standstills, because there are more potholes, wear and tear on the roads, etc. Now imagine it’s the day before Thanksgiving.
Ack. So what are the chances for major change? Major new infrastructure like high speed rail, even new highways? Slim. MIT notes that “unlike the interstate highway system, which was planned in the 1950s to increase supply or physical capacity, the national infrastructure has no new major projects planned for it.” Even if we did put the pedal down, our major transit projects now take decades to complete—think Boston’s Big Dig or New York’s never-ending 2nd Avenue subway line. And Obama tried to dole out $8 billion in high speed rail funding—but stubborn state governors rejected the funding in many cases.
Fly Above the Road-Raging Masses
So why not just soar above the gridlock, and head home in style? After all, companies like Airbus imagine that their planes will be super-luxurious and awesome by the year 2050:
Um, yeah. Those planes might exist for a select few hedge fund robot overlords, but not for the most of us. Most planes in 2050 won’t likely look much different from the ones we’re on now, for starters. And flying might be trickier business, especially since the airline industry is extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in jet fuel prices—and global demand for oil is expected to double by 2050. Meanwhile supply is believed to have maxed out around right now. As of today, the price of oil is $87 a barrel. By 2050, analysts think oil could easily climb as high as $140-160 a barrel—we’ve seen steadily rising oil prices pocked by a few major spikes over the last decade. More efficient planes, more advanced biofuels, and further subsidies to airlines will help ease some of that, but we certainly might not be jetting around the nation with the same frequency many do today. More and more of us could find ourselves grounded.
And even if alternatives to oil flow in at a greater pace than imagined, or we keep discovering bottomless new stockpiles of black gold and burning that stuff, climate change be damned, we’ll still face familiar problems—more people in the same number of aging airports. JFK’s already a nightmare. Imagine another couple million people or so descending upon its overloaded terminals for the holiday rush. As with our highway infrastructure, there are few major plans to expand airport facilities in coming years, either.
Telecommutin’ Home for the Holidays
With super-expensive plane tickets and choked motorways, people might increasingly decide to “telecommute” to the holidays. Tales abound of relatives Skyping in for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas eve. It’s a popular ‘trend’ piece in the mainstream media, and the concept is getting normalized pretty quickly. Here’s what a real-life Skype Thanksgiving looks like right now:
Yeah, it’s a little sad. Not overtly so or anything; the scene just sort of has an ineffable air of regret to it. Granted, technology is bound to improve. More bandwidth will allow for better, clearer streaming video, and more seamless interactions. That, combined with bigger, cheaper screens might cause Google+ Hangouts to more successfully emulate actual hangouts. But that doesn’t change the fundamental act of talking to a screen, rather than a person. My guess is that Skyping in for the holidays is probably going to be a lot more common—due in part to mounting transit difficulties—but not necessarily more rewarding.
So, we could choose to develop further-reaching, more efficient and sustainable transportation networks that will support our still-growing population. Researchers and scientists urge this scenario; both to deal with rising carbon emissions and to prevent the transit system from collapsing under the weight of millions of new travelers. Some unforeseen innovation may bring the cost of air travel down, allowing us to fly over that poor mess below. Or some IT breakthrough might make video-chatting as satisfying as actually shoveling down grandma’s famous cranberry sauce in person. Or we might decide to let our roads congest and crumble and resign ourselves to a future of sighing behind the wheel, heading home in agonizing bumper-to-bumper.
The future, as they say, is wide open. Especially for something as mundane as heading home for the holidays.