Commuting: The Life Sentence

Austin Williams| 8 June 2004

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. Few would contest that the 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? 

According to a recent report by the Rail Passengers Council, we are in ‘despair’, as 1 in 4 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 even deep vein thrombosis!

David Young, Project Co-ordinator at Sustrans South-East, speaking at ‘Commuting: the life sentence?’ organised by the Transport Research Group, was keen to trumpet the virtues of cycling in the fight against obesity. This proved topical as the following week saw the publication of the Commons Health Select Committee report on the issue, with transport featuring prominently in their recommendations.

If we all worked from home, we were reminded, there would be 20% less traffic on the roads. So said Nicky Gavron, Deputy Mayor of London. 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.

Arguably, the ideal of mass mobility and the more familiar reality of congested commuting are 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. Revealingly, the RAC Foundation discovered, to their evident horror, that even if our journeys were to double in duration ‘we’d just shrug and leave more time’. So why has the act of getting to work become such a major cause for concern now, even if we are a little more stoical than the hysteria might suggest?

Commuting today is an experience we share in common, not restricted to the ‘pinstripe suits’ of old. (Their creed, nevertheless, persisted as a mythical presence in the debate.) In his wonderfully 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 burdens of our particularly anxious times.

It is notable, for instance, how the discussion of the (im-) mobile metropolis tends to focus on the despairing angst-ridden commuter as much as infrastructural failure. The broader public sphere seems remote. Our working lives lack definition, no longer anchoring our identities in the wider world. The sense that the commuter routes that make them possible, are collapsing around our ears only reinforces this disengagement.

Consequently, I think , the banal act of getting to and from work is caught up in the relentless politicisation of the everyday and the increasing significance attached to the realm of the interpersonal – particularly its allegedly destructive consequences on our health, social lives and the environment. As Austin Williams, chairing the debate, said, ‘transport is rarely discussed in its own terms’. As he pointed out ‘even though Britain has the longest commute times in Europe, commuting still takes up just a measly 46 minutes of our day… that’s 23 minutes each way. Surely we should be getting this so-called problem into perspective.’ For Tony Grayling, Associate Director (Sustainability) at the Institute for Public Policy Research, it is no longer about ‘trains, planes and automobiles’.

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’. What might once have been regarded as an 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 – and often parochial – take on the ‘good 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, and in more ways than one.

This review examined the themes of the Future Cities Project evening seminar held at the Museum of London in May 2004.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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