The age of ‘the commute’

The ‘commute’ to suggest the daily trip to work is among the more modern words in the English lexicon.

Until the end of the 19th century, the commuter didn’t exist, and then came public transport and, eventually, cars. Now, we discuss commuting as if it’s an inevitable part of going to work, and by commuting, we generally don’t mean cycling and walking – we mean ever-longer distances travelled by road and rail.

Let’s be honest; we need go back no further than our grandparents or perhaps to find a generation who would be aghast at the idea of travelling for two hours to a job. Only a short time ago, the vast majority of people chose to live within a walk, cycle ride or bus journey of their work. So what happened for this to change?

From the 1970s forward, there has been a perfect storm of circumstances which changed people’s working lives forever. Rocketing house prices in many cities drove the low-waged out to city margins; industrial development moved ever further from residential areas; at the same time, snobbish offices demanded city-centre addresses; cars became cheap; schools were ‘graded’ to flag up the good and bad; and by the 1980s, Norman Tebbit simply told out-of-work communities to uproot themselves and get on their bikes to where the work was.

We now find ourselves in a world in which the number of people who bike to work are in the minority. For a great many of the middle class, getting their children into good schools, living in a rural setting and working in a mirror-glass city are so engrained, commuting is worn almost as a badge of honour, and good public transport or seamless motorway journeys are a right.

This often overwhelms common sense. I once knew a married woman who felt so driven to emulate her peers, she employed a patchwork of child minders and nurseries so she could return to a middling job in banking. We talked about this, and it transpired that she would have more money if she ditched most of the childcare and worked part-time in a local shop. Eventually, and to her great credit, she took a few years off work to ‘parent’ and, as I had predicted, was later welcomed back to her career when she presented her CV.

At a vast office I once worked, parking was at a premium. In an effort to resolve the crisis, the management decided that the parking spots would be given by preference to people (mostly the best paid) who’d chosen to live furthest from their place of work. Those who arrived by bus were refused a bus fare refund and castigated when they arrived late, ironically as a result of commuters in cars.

We live in strange times….

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