Commuting: The life sentence?

The one aspect of the daily grind that is guaranteed to provoke an opinion is the commute to work. Congested roads, overcrowded trains, packed buses and sweaty tubes – it’s been said that if travel broadens the mind, commuting shrinks it back.

According to a recent report by the Rail Passengers Council, we are in ‘despair’, as one in four of London’s commuter trains fails to arrive on time. Trade unions criticise bosses for stressing out their employees by expecting them to commute too much. Some go further, linking what might otherwise be regarded as a relatively innocuous activity with high blood pressure, heart disease and blood clots in the leg.

Few would contest that the UK’s transport infrastructure is in a sorry state. But if the commuting experience is really so bad, why do so many of us continue to do it? This was the topic of discussion at the recent debate organised by the London-based Transport Research Group. (1)

David Young, project coordinator at Sustrans South-East, was keen to trumpet the virtues of cycling in the fight against obesity. This proved topical given the publication, the following week, of the House of Commons Health Committee report on the issue, with strategies to reduce people’s reliance on transport featuring prominently in its recommendations.

Continuing the theme of millennial moral panics, Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, highlighted the issue of congestion. If we all worked from home, she suggested, there would be 20 per cent less traffic on the roads. However, co-panellist Timandra Harkness longed ‘for the two separate worlds’ of home and work that she has otherwise denied herself as a freelance journalist. As Gavron acknowledged, for many of us the daily commute is the price we are willing to pay for the dynamism of city life.

The ideal of mass mobility and the more familiar reality of congested commuting are arguably the essence of bustling cities. A member of the audience argued that we might even welcome the opportunity for quiet reflection that stalling commuter routes offer up, if admittedly by default. The RAC Foundation has discovered, to its evident horror, that even if our journeys were to double in duration ‘we’d just shrug and leave more time’ (2). So why has the act of getting to work become such a major cause for concern now, despite our reluctance to avoid commuting in practice?

Commuting today is an experience we share in common, not restricted to the ‘pinstripe suits’ of old. In his quirky The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes how we take our troubled selves with us when we travel. This, I think, can only be intensified in the routine journeying of the jaded commuter.  As well as ourselves though, we carry around with us the broader anxieties and frustrations of our times.

So it is striking how the discussion of the (im-) mobile metropolis tends to focus on the despairing angst-ridden commuter as much as infrastructural failure. The debate about commuting tends to become a metaphor for concerns that our working lives lack definition; and the sense that the commuter routes are falling apart as well only reinforces this sense of disengagement and confusion.

Consequently, as Austin Williams, chairing the debate, said, ‘transport is rarely discussed in its own terms’. For Tony Grayling, associate director (Sustainability) at the Institute for Public Policy Research, it is no longer about ‘trains, planes and automobiles’. Far from being a practical issue that needs addressing, transport has become an area through which a whole range of moral and political prejudices are aired. 

The policy response, in this context, makes more sense. Grayling went on to explain how he was interested in minimising the environmental and social costs of travel, and what he described as the undermining of ‘communities of place’. The deputy mayor was unapologetically intent on ‘reducing the need to travel’ altogether in the name of creating her ‘liveable city’. It seems that what might once have been regarded as a parochial, even eccentric contribution to the policy discussion has come to dominate both the transport agenda and the curiously pedestrian thinking on all things urban.

Indeed such tangential considerations as those posed by Grayling, Gavron and Young alike, are celebrated for their very joined-up-ness. Instead of dreaming up better ways of getting us from A to B, politicians and policy makers alike are increasingly concerned with engineering their particular take on society. Addressing everything from the environment, public health, and social inequality, to the work-life balance, community-building and civic engagement – it’s hardly surprising we’ve come to a stand-still.

(1) Commuting: the life sentence?

(2) UK Commute ‘longest in Europe’, BBC News, 22 July, 2003

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