By: John Rousseau
While the future is always unknown, the pandemic has amplified our awareness of uncertainty, implicating many facets of life that were once thought of as enduring.
This series explores this altered landscape through the lens of critical uncertainties and narrative sketches of potential 10-year futures. These scenarios are not predictions — they illustrate a range of plausible outcomes that may help challenge prevailing assumptions, spark discussion, and inform more resilient strategies.
The strategic question
In light of the current pandemic, how might the future of mobility evolve in the US by 2030? Will the pandemic act as a catalyst for significant change, or will we observe a return to the norm?
Mobility scenarios often focus on technology (e.g. autonomous, AI, electrification, etc.) and innovation/policy (e.g. new business models, regulation, etc.). Looking ahead, the mobility landscape may also be impacted by other factors we have previously taken for granted:
1. Norms regarding shared space and resources
How might policies and attitudes toward density, crowds, personal/public space, and shared resources/services affect mobility behaviors?
2. The future of work
How might changes in work — specifically the trend toward decentralized and asynchronous knowledge work and the “death of the office” — contribute to secondary effects that impact mobility?
The interaction of these dynamics leads to the following scenarios:
1. View from 2019
Work is more centralized + Sharing increases
2030 looks a lot like we thought it might in 2019. Pandemic effects were relatively short-lived — with most people returning to old patterns of work and lifestyle once the virus was contained. The office remains the dominant paradigm for professional work and the car remains the primary means of transport around which everything else is built. In large and affluent cities, AI manages the commute for many, in concert with connected vehicles, ride-sharing services, increasing numbers of autonomous vehicles, and a smattering of micro-mobility solutions that come and go. More and more organizations are organizing their own solutions, and the company bus is simply an extension of the office. Poor neighborhoods, smaller cities, and rural areas are increasingly left behind, as access to stable and well-paid work declines, income inequality widens, and the middle-class contracts.
2. Urban Utopia
Work is more decentralized + Sharing increases
Work is a hybrid activity — taking place in new, shared offices, at home, and elsewhere, but still somewhat linked to geography. Large cities are still the nexus of culture and commerce. City planners moved aggressively during and after the pandemic to create more livable cites — closing off major roads to vehicle traffic and moving toward pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure. E-bikes and scooters are everywhere. Retail is thriving as a destination experience, while traditional office space is being converted into mixed-use spaces and apartments which are available as part of innovative and affordable sharing models that have increased access to housing. Delivery has become the dominant means of acquiring everyday goods. The automobile is increasingly irrelevant in the city but remains a necessity in the suburbs and beyond.
3. Solo Commute
Work is more centralized + Sharing decreases
As some experts predicted, the virus is still with us, although we have become adept at managing its impact. The initial experiment in remote work proved a mixed bag, leading many firms to create new workspaces designed to foster optimal levels of collaboration and productivity while maintaining new and sometimes elaborate hygiene policies. Cities are particularly dysfunctional, as mass transit ridership has declined, reducing revenue and thwarting needed improvements. Safer alternatives and micro-mobility have proliferated, exacerbating challenges with aging infrastructure and a car-centric world. Traffic is getting worse each year, and the suburbs are growing. Those that can commute by car do so, parking some distance from the office where they access autonomous company transit designed for individual privacy and cleanliness.
4. Rural Shift
Work is more decentralized + Sharing decreases
The effects of the pandemic have been deep and long-lasting, particularly in terms of attitudes toward public/private space, density, and perceived safety. The office is dead. As more companies adopted remote, decentralized and asynchronous work policies, many people migrated from coastal cities to more affordable and less congested locales — breathing new life into small towns as large cities have struggled. Along with work, everything that can happen online does, including higher education, which has become increasingly vocational. The talent economy has created both opportunity and disruption. The economic effects of the early 2020s have lingered — inspiring new priorities and less conspicuous consumption. Even so, personal vehicles are a symbol of the utility they provide and the lifestyles they enable. Fewer people are flying, and the road trip is back.
This framework rests on various assumptions — for example that the percentage of people able to work remotely will continue to grow (currently estimated at ~40%). In a future where roughly half of workers are remote, it goes without saying that the other half will need to get from A to B much like today. Likewise, a wide range of services and experiences will require physical presence regardless of how the pandemic plays out.
Even so, the impacts are potentially significant. These scenarios aim to explore the edges of what is possible and the dynamics at play. In some ways, 2030 will look like today, and in other ways it will be quite different — the question is in which ways, and to what extent. Will you load groceries in an electric SUV, receive delivery by drone, ride an e-bike to the market, hail an autonomous shuttle, or take public transit? Yes, probably.