Listen to this story
The End of Affordable Travel
While the rich traverse the globe in an instant, the rest of us will be staying put
In September 2017, from an auditorium stage in Adelaide, Australia, Elon Musk offered a dramatic vision of humanity’s kinetic destiny. The occasion was the annual International Astronautical Congress. Musk was there to give a presentation on the BFR, the massive rocket vehicle his aerospace startup, SpaceX, is developing to power the first manned missions to Mars. (BFR officially stood for Big Falcon Rocket, but Musk, with his adolescent geek’s sense of humor, had long hinted it really meant Big Fucking Rocket. He has since renamed it Starship.)
At the end of the 40-minute talk, Musk played a concept video showing the BFR launching from a floating pad off the shore of New York City, exiting the atmosphere, circling Earth, and reentering to land on another maritime platform near Shanghai. Total travel time: 39 minutes. “If you’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, why not use it to go to other places on Earth as well?” Musk said.
A genius of publicity as much as engineering, Musk knows how to craft claims that attract attention. The tagline “anywhere on Earth in under an hour” circled the globe even faster than an artist-rendered BFR. But if it was ambitious, it wasn’t particularly surprising. Warp drives, jet packs, teleporters—when science fiction conjures the future, ultrafast long-distance transportation is usually a core part of it.
With good reason. The story of human civilization can be seen as a series of widening circles representing the radius the average human can expect to travel in a given unit of time: a day, a year, a lifetime. The first people to mount horses and make canoes from hollowed-out tree trunks expanded their worlds by an order of magnitude. Celestial navigation and sails made transit across oceans possible; steam engines made it routine. Trains did the same for overland travel, and then automobiles opened up an infinitude of routes and schedules. Finally, the crowning achievement, the jet airplane, which allowed a sufficiently masochistic person to fly from New York to Paris and back again in a single day.
Eventually, supersonic will become the default for trips longer than 1,000 miles. “So you can go across the Atlantic, do business, and be home to tuck your kids into bed.”
But while faster and longer may be the trend in human movement patterns, it’s not the law. One of the very first technological achievements, the invention of agriculture, had the opposite effect, inducing nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to give up their wanderings and hunker down in villages. It was a dramatic shift for a species whose members, until that point in prehistory, typically covered six to 10 miles a day on foot.
In the next few decades, we may be in for an equally dramatic shift, thanks to a slew of new technologies, from autonomous cars to virtual reality, and other forces that promise to transform where and how we live, work, recreate, shop, and vacation. For the first time since the advent of air travel, the geographic scale of a median human life could again jump by an order of magnitude. For the first time in history, it could go in either direction, bigger or smaller. And probably both at once.
“Our long-term mission is to remove the barriers to experiencing the planet,” says Blake Scholl of his Denver, Colorado–based startup, Boom Supersonic, which has raised more than $141 million in venture capital. Since Air France and British Airways retired their Concorde fleets in 2003, civilian air travel has been limited to subsonic speeds. That’s a function of economics: Fuel efficiency drops rapidly beyond the sound barrier, making supersonic travel a money sink, even at business-class fares. Boom’s goal is to eke out enough efficiency improvements through advances in materials and design to close that gap and then, as economies of scale kick in, begin to lower fares. Eventually, Scholl predicts, just as jets replaced propellers for everything beyond regional trips, supersonic will become the default for trips longer than 1,000 miles. “So you can go across the Atlantic, do business, and be home to tuck your kids into bed,” he says.
An intercontinental flight that takes four or six hours isn’t just preferable to one that takes twice as long—it’s preferable to staying home. Scholl invokes his father-in-law, who lives in Hong Kong and sees his grandkids only once a year. “When it’s 16, 18 hours, you just can’t make the time for that very often,” he says. “When it becomes an overnight flight, now, all of a sudden, you go every few months.” Worldwide, international travel more than doubled in the 20 years between 1997 and 2017, but Scholl says it would be growing faster still — far faster — if the flights weren’t so punishingly long. Convenience begets demand. “Travel to Hawaii went up sixfold in the first 10 years of the jet age,” he says. “You see these patterns wherever you look. The supersonic age is going to have really exciting second-order effects that, frankly, we can’t predict.”
But there’s one effect that’s not so hard to predict: Radically increasing the number of very long flights means radically increasing the amount of jet fuel being burned, which means radically increasing the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. But while Scholl touts Boom’s efforts to limit its planes’ emissions and explore alternative fuels, he notes that aviation accounts for only about 2 percent of carbon emissions. “If you want to make progress on CO2, there’s a lot of other low-hanging fruit to go after,” he says. Then again, if the demand curve for supersonic flight resembles the one for jet trips to Hawaii, that 2 percent could quickly hit double digits. In fact, that’s likely to happen regardless: A 2014 report from the U.N.-backed Sustainable Development Solutions Network predicted aviation could make up half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury as other sectors transition more rapidly to cleaner and renewable fuels.
Is that something humanity can afford? Meteorologist Eric Holthaus didn’t think so when, in 2013, an earlier IPCC report convinced him that giving up air travel was his only ethical course. “If anything is to change, it will have to come from individuals taking ownership of the problem themselves,” he wrote in an essay announcing his lifestyle change. As a speaker and environmental consultant, he had been averaging 75,000 air miles a year, making his carbon footprint more than double that of the average American (and Americans emit more carbon per capita than almost any other nation). Just by swearing off airplanes, he reduced it to 30 percent below the national average.
In a follow-up essay, Holthaus reported that the commitment had involved its share of sacrifices but, on balance, had enriched his life. “My world has shrunk and become richer,” he wrote. “It’s opened my mind more to enjoying the journey than just rushing to get to the destination. Cliché maybe, but true.”
Climate-conscious air-travel abstainers like Holthaus are likely to become more numerous in the same way environmentalism has become a common motive for giving up eating meat. But it may not come down to individual conscience. In his book 2050: Tomorrow’s Tourism, Ian Yeoman, a professor at New Zealand’s University of Wellington who writes about the future of the travel industry, spins out an elaborate scenario in which the effects of climate change, combined with strong regulations to combat it, have all but eliminated long-distance leisure travel. With flights and even long car trips prohibitively taxed, tourism, for all but the ultrarich, will mean visiting theme park–like attractions within your own megacity — localized simulacra of the things earlier generations had the luxury of seeing in person (think: the Las Vegas Strip).
When it comes to the scale of our daily movements, a half-century from now is likely to resemble Back to to the Future in many respects — a return to a premodern way of life in which traveling scores of miles for routine work and shopping is an aberration. Since the mid-20th century, the automobile has been the organizing principle of U.S. infrastructure planning and the sine qua non of its signature institutions: the exurb, the big-box store, the long-distance commute.
Car ownership is a self-reinforcing phenomenon: Parking one requires space, which means living farther from the city center, which means a longer commute, which is more comfortable in a bigger car, which requires still more space to park, and so on. There are already signs that the youngest adults are less interested than their predecessors in entering this cycle, and a confluence of technologies has the potential to disrupt it permanently. Car-sharing and ride-hailing services have already made it possible to enjoy the convenience and relative privacy of car ownership without the burdens. In coming years, the advent of autonomous vehicles will further change the car-ownership equation in all sorts of ways.
In one scenario, for all but the ultrarich, tourism will mean visiting theme park–like attractions within your own megacity (think: the Las Vegas Strip).
When you don’t need use of your car, you’ll be able to let it make money for you as a self-driving Uber or Lyft or park itself in a remote garage. Either way, there will be no need for cars to compete for parking in congested urban areas. All those acres of parking spots can be repurposed for modes of transportation more adapted to dense urban environments — protected lanes for bikes and electric scooters, for instance. (Or Segways. Steve Jobs’ famous prediction that Dean Kamen’s two-wheeled “Human Transporter” would change the way cities are laid out has been much mocked, but it wasn’t necessarily wrong, says Greg Lindsay, an urbanist and futurist with the nonprofit NewCities. “That’s the dockless scooter revolution,” he says. “He was just 20 years early.”)
Ryan Chin, founder of the autonomous vehicle startup Optimus Ride and a veteran of the MIT Media Lab, believes we’ll see autonomous passenger vehicles first in strictly geofenced areas, like college and corporate campuses, operating at speeds of 25 miles per hour or under. At places like the University of Buffalo, they’re already being tested as a last-mile solution shuttling people from mass-transit hubs to their nearby homes or offices. For artificial intelligence to completely replicate the abilities of human drivers could take 50 years, Chin says.
Futurists love anything that promotes urban density. For one thing, city living is wildly more energy efficient; America’s love affair with suburbs is a major reason Americans consume twice as much energy as Western Europeans on a per-capita basis. Pack all 300 million Americans into high-rises and subway cars and suddenly, meeting the Paris accord targets is no challenge at all. There’s also a substantial body of scholarship around the idea that proximity breeds prosperity. Physicist and urbanist Luis Bettencourt calls cities “social reactors” wherein people are the fuel; the greater the compression, the hotter the burn.
But there’s a big asterisk here, which is that technologies designed to support denser living can have unexpected consequences. Uber and Lyft’s founders long claimed they would improve congestion by helping people give up their cars. On the contrary, most studies have concluded that ride-sharing has made traffic worse and diverted passengers from efficient trains and buses to low-occupancy cars. Or look at Elon Musk, who got interested in digging tunnels via his dream of building a “hyperloop” transit system that could whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes. Somehow, that idea mutated into an underground railway for transporting individual cars.
Autonomous vehicles could make cities into walkable, bikeable super-villages — or they could encourage longer commutes than we’ve ever seen. If your SUV becomes a place where you can watch a movie or take a nap, spending four hours a day in it becomes that much less painful. “You have these two worlds, and it really depends on how we shape those technologies to regulation,” Chin says. In American mythology, cars are instruments of freedom, but without the right policy interventions — say, a steep carbon tax and dynamic congestion pricing, with the proceeds of both going toward funding green infrastructure — they become rolling prisons.
That’s all assuming you need to go somewhere in person. How long will that be the case? As the quality of virtual experiences improves over the coming decades, we will begin to look at much early 21st-century travel the same way we view the ubiquitous cigarette smoking in movies from the 1960s, says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “We’re going to think, ‘Can you believe 50 years ago we were doing things like this?” he says. Like the autonomous convenience store on wheels several startups are working on, your business meetings, college classes, and even tourist attractions will come to you, rendered in high fidelity, down to textures and smells.
For more than 15 years, Bailenson has been helping midwife technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, and telepresence robots. When he started, telecommuting was relatively rare; now, almost half of U.S. workers say they do at least some of their jobs remotely. Faced with the ultrahigh cost of commercial real estate in San Francisco and New York, a number of startups are forgoing physical offices altogether in favor of all-virtual workforces; one company, InVision, is worth $2 billion and has more than 800 employees. Reducing emissions isn’t a major consideration in most companies’ work-from-home policies, but the wastefulness of making people climb into hydrocarbon-powered metal boxes twice a day just so they can plug their noise-canceling headphones into their laptops isn’t lost on Bailenson. “I firmly believe as we approach a planet of 11 billion people in our lifetime, we can’t all drive an hour a day each way to work,” he says. “It’s just not a sustainable future.”
While the technologies Bailenson studies have come a long way during his time in the field, they’re still in their infancy. Attending professional conferences via a telepresence robot, like Edward Snowden, is still more of a stunt than a hack. Reliable videoconference software is free and ubiquitous, but many people still prefer voice-only calls. What might change that, Bailenson thinks, is augmented reality avatars, which solve many of the annoying things about video chat: bad lighting, broken eye contact, the fear that you have food in your teeth. The killer app of AR “is gonna be beaming in people,” or their chosen likenesses, so you can interact with them in your own surroundings so seamlessly that you forget they aren’t really there.
Social interactions in VR still lack many of the nonverbal cues, from arm touches to microexpressions, that make in-person conversations such a high-bandwidth from of communication. But as the technology improves, Bailenson says, “you’re going to see it chip away at some of the ridiculous travel.” He recently few to Borneo — a 29-hour journey, including layovers — to give a 45-minute talk to 2,000 people. The topic: using VR to fight climate change. “Just think of how ridiculous that is,” Bailenson says. About as ridiculous as, say, crossing the Atlantic twice in one day for a meeting.
Like Scholl with supersonic air travel, Bailenson thinks VR won’t just replace current travel—it will also hugely stimulate demand for it. Instead of taking field trips to museums or historical sites a few times a year, high school classes will take them a few times a week, and to anywhere in the world. The difference being, of course, the marginal cost of a virtual field trip will be zero, and the carbon footprint will be close to that.
It could well be that future generations spend a fraction of the time we do today in transit but see far more of the world. Like preindustrial humans, they may work mostly in their homes — if they work at all — and spend the vast majority of their time within a couple miles of them. The wealthiest among them may have the ability to visit the other side of the globe and be back in time for dinner.
As for the rest, the experience of traveling somewhere in the flesh, IRL, may be such a rare treat that they’ll be happy to slow down and enjoy the journey.