Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post - A view of the Capitol Beltway looking east from Kensington, Md.
A view of the Capitol Beltway looking east from Kensington, Md. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Geez, we’ve had it all wrong. Or, perhaps, we’ve only had part of the story in reporting that the internet has left America’s vaunted car culture on the precipice of a sharp decline. Sure, people are communicating, and buying stuff, and beating traffic through deft use of mobile devices, lap tops and iPads.

But University of Minnesota economist David Levinson sees a whole other reason that we’ll be driving a lot less in the future. In a piece out last week, he says that traffic volume has been in decline since early in the 21st century. Sure, a lot of people figured it was the recession, and there was truth to that for a while, but he says there’s more to it than just that or the pervasive influence of the internet.

As traffic continues to get lighter, he says, the credit will go to changes in the way people work. He predicts that getting every-other Friday off will become standard within a couple of years. By 2020 he sees people working four 9-hour days at the office and then four more at home. Five years after that, add every other Monday off to the mix. He calls that the 4/3 schedule, four days of work one week, three days of work the next.

At some point — and this isn’t unheard of right now — many employers will go to the “flipped” office. People will “work” at home on their own computers, and only show up for meetings in the office. Empty office buildings eventually may be converted to apartments, drawing more people into the urban core, not far from their much smaller offices, now reduced mostly to meeting rooms for use when employees drop in. So, those workers won’t be commuting and may not even own a car.

And that will be great, Levinson says, because by 2025 some cities may ban cars in core areas.

“Where will the car go?” he writes. “Some warn that the new generation of inexpensive, electrically powered robo-cars will make travel more attractive, and reverse the three decade slide in driving. Others foresee that new light-weight robo-copters will make roads obsolete, and people will just take off from their roofs, and go anywhere they want. Many also suggest that living in cities will lose its desirability with newly low cost housing available in rural areas. But no one thinks congestion is coming back, time is too short to waste it sitting in traffic.”

Quite a vision, but everyone agrees with that last point.