Considerable attention has been paid to the injustices surrounding work, but what about the injustices of workers’ commutes? Dr David Jenkins asks if it’s time to rethink urban development and reform commuting.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, workers in newly industrialising towns and cities travelled, on average, 50m to work. Could the same occur today to kill the commute?

Keeping workers close to their places of employment was an effective way of reducing the calories that got burned, unproductively, getting there. And besides, nobody who could afford to would want to live in such close proximity to the noise and smoke of factories, warehouses and the related machinery.

As a result, there was a happy confluence – as far the employers were concerned – between keeping workers close to factories and making money out of real estate for which landlords could not find any other use.

Today, things look very different for a great many people.

Where I am based, in London, the average London worker will reportedly spend £135,000 and 400 days of their lives travelling between home and work. In the UK as a whole, the number of workers commuting two hours or more a day has increased by 72 percent since 2004, from 1.7 to 3 million people.

In the US, there has been a growth in the so-called ‘super commute’, where some commuters can spend upwards of four hours a day going to and from work. The most ‘popular’ of these is the 322km roundtrip between Tucson and Phoenix.

Given that commuting makes us, on the whole, less healthy – in some instances, shortening lives – poorer, less free, and worse citizens, we might wonder how commuting could be integrated into a suitably updated 21st Century battle cry.

In the global south, where urban populations are usually both much larger and denser than American and European cities, public infrastructure is underserving and being simultaneously overwhelmed by commuters: Commuters in Bangkok spend, on average, three hours a day commuting.

Of course, this is not all bad. Where workers in the past might not have had to commute, this did not reflect any meaningful choice on their part. Indeed, even those who lived in so-called ‘company towns’, where the standard of living was typically somewhat higher than early industrial slums adjacent to factories, lived under the surveillance of ‘the company’.

Getting away from such towns, workers were able to strike their own balance between differently valued objects, between proximity to work and independence from employers’ ‘paternalism’.

Today as well, workers who want larger houses can do so by moving out to a city’s outer suburbs where land is cheaper and neighbourhoods, for whatever reason, more desirable.

But commuting is still, for many, experienced as a kind of unpaid dead time. And this dead time can have negative effects across a range of different categories.

Most basically, there are issues of health. Commuting by car when tired – say, after an eight-hour work shift – can be lethal. In the US, around one person every hour dies in a traffic-related accident caused by a ‘fatigue-related error’. Think: if such a death rate was going on inside a workplace, we’d be appalled.

Less immediately fatal, there is also evidence to show that ‘passive’ commuting increases pulse rates, raise systolic blood pressure, cause a higher Body Mass Index (BMI), as well as raise stress to dangerous levels.

In New Zealand, four out of five commuters drive to and from work in this ‘passive’ way (I think describing the personal command of high-speed chunks of metal as ‘passive’, belies just how demanding it can be).

Secondly, commuting is not only unpaid, but has to be paid for: Whether it is running a car or paying for a season train ticket, these costs add up. In a twist of fate, now that city centres have been released from their industrial-warehousing function, the wealthier are in a position to pay the premium for having shorter commutes.

Thirdly, there are the ways in which commuting relates to our fellow commuters, who, let’s not forget, are our fellow citizens. On a crowded metro, with our eyeballs and nostrils thrust into a strangers’ armpits, we are not experiencing our time with fellow citizens in ways productive of politeness, let alone for those comportments and attitudes we might think are conducive to democratic politics.

In the 19th Century, when commuting was not high on workers’ agenda, the collective battle cry issued in a demand of ‘eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will’.

Given that commuting makes us, on the whole, less healthy – in some instances, shortening lives – poorer, less free, and worse citizens, we might wonder how commuting could be integrated into a suitably updated 21st Century battle cry.

There are, at least, two routes forward: the first, is an attempt to figure out how to make commuting compatible with either work or rest (it cannot be willed, per se, since commuting is necessary travel).

If commuting is to be treated as work, then both health and safety legislation has to apply and it has to be remunerated. If it is to be rest, then no more armpit intimacy on public transport, and no more private command of high-speed tons of metal after eight-hour shifts of labour.

The second route is both simpler and more radical: build and make available genuinely affordable housing closer to centres of employment. This could mean the state gets involved as both builder and landlord of this more centralised housing (as in Vienna), or else the introduction of rent caps and stronger tenancy protections.

Getting commutes all the way down to 50m might be a tall order, but the time, money and space freed up by radical reductions in commuting time, would be better for everyone.

Leave a comment