The Commute

Here is the author version of a chapter forthcoming in the new Routledge Handbook of Mobilities, due December. Some really interesting pieces in this – consider ordering it for your library.

For the definitive version of this paper, see the published version.

All Change: birth of the commute

The word ‘commute’ is said to come from the ‘commuting’ of fares paid by nineteenth-century Americans regularly travelling to work by train (OED 2012). The commute to work as a mass phenomenon  is tied to the separation of home and work, characteristic of the shift from  feudalism  to capitalism,  and specifically to the later rise of mass transit  enabling the large-scale greater separation of the two. Hence the commute should be seen in the context of structural changes in the organisation of production, as well as structural changes in gendered relations to spaces of paid and unpaid work inside and outside the home. This relates not just to the movement of people but of things, the railways initially being developed for freight purposes (Wolmar 2007). Rail freight enabled factories to be located further away from raw materials (such as coal and limestone, often found inconveniently far from existing population centres). Being able to move raw materials (and finished goods) longer distances gave employers more flexibility in locating factories and reduced the need to provide new housing for workers.

As rail became more widely used for passenger transport, employers’ locational flexibility increased: people could travel further to work, and workplaces became less closely tied to the location of labour as well as materials. The development of transport technologies and systems in the context of capitalist expansion and competition forms the basis for the ‘time- space  compression’  (Harvey 1990) which  transformed  existing  spatial  and social  orders. There have been various waves of this compression, with impacts varying by region, nation, and social group. The first, in the nineteenth century, generated patterns of development that were  then  built  on  in  subsequent  waves.  The  railways  inaugurated  a new  age that  set transport costs on a long-term downwards course, generating centralised ‘economies of production’ at greater and greater spatial scales (Faith 1990).

As production became dependent on mass transit, there was debate then, as now, about the cost of the commute. Much of the British public transport industry was in the hands of private companies, whose guiding aim was prof it, rather than supporting the development of other  sectors  by providing  affordable  travel. Following Parliamentary debate the  Cheap Trains Act, 1883, required railway companies serving cities ‘to provide proper and sufficient workmen’s  trains  at such  fares and at such  times  between  six p.m. and eight a.m. as may appear to the Board of Trade to be reasonable’ (Roberts undated: 9; UK Parliament 1883). As  the  nineteenth  century  drew  to  a close,  public transport  came under  renewed  state scrutiny, again focusing on the commute and the need to provide for the rising numbers of middle-  and working-class  commuters.  Increasing  regulation resulted  in the  creation by the  twentieth   century  of  private  transport   oligopolies,   overseen   by  the  British   state (Wolmar 2007).

Around the turn of the century, in addition to the omnibus  and the bicycle, discussed further below, overground rail networks were transforming travel to work in many cities. But in the UK capital major rail stations  were located at the edge of the city (for reasons related to class, competition  and property ownership),  leaving gaps between  entry to the capital and workplace locations.  London’s  tram network  remained  under-developed  and from 1863 it was instead the Tube (underground) that, alongside buses, tended to f ill this gap. The Tube commute became a symbol of London, immortalised in Anthony Asquith’s 1928 film Underground. At first, the new underground lines were greeted with mixtures of horror, fear and excitement. Cartoons portrayed the ‘hellish’ nature of the new system, with steam power,  crowded  trains  and  platforms,  and  (later in  the  nineteenth  century)  passenger smoking combining to give a sense of an underworld. When the Circle line opened in 1884, The Times commented: ‘A journey from King’s Cross to Baker Street is a form of mild torture which no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it’ (quoted in LT Museum undated). Another journalist  compared his Circle line trip to the inhalation of gas before having a tooth drawn.

While the underground nature of the system was particularly disconcerting, overground railways had earlier in the nineteenth century generated similar unease. While the workings of horse and foot power were transparent, the ‘iron horse’ was different. For its movement, it relied upon  a power source  stored  in fossil fuel  form, rather than upon  direct and visible physical  activity. The railway seemed  to deny previously  existing  and apparently ‘natural’ limits to land movement, and so to challenge the received social order of things. In this they represented the irresistible force of the industrial world (Hobsbawm 1975). Across the globe, the railways were recognised as generating social and spatial transformation, challenging old divisions  and producing  new  ones,  with  particular national and regional characteristics. Part  of this  challenge was  the  restructuring  of relationships  between  home  and  work, a restructuring that has continued since.

The Second Wave: changes in twentieth-century commuting

In the UK, the spatial relationship between home and work was transformed again over the twentieth century, albeit unevenly. In the first half of the century, many people outside large cities continued to walk to work. A large study using oral history found that ‘[f ]rom 1890s to the 1930s walking to work was the most common experience’ (Pooley and Turnbull 2000: 14). Pooley and Turnbull’s evidence suggests that in the early twentieth century distances to work remained relatively short in towns with less than 100,000 people. There, in the twenty-year period before World War Two around two-thirds of people walked or, increasingly, cycled to work. This contrasts with London, where (currently low) cycling rates are as high as they ever were. In 1900, most Londoners already used public transport (power sources were various, including electricity, horse, and diesel/petrol), indicating substantial separation between homes and workplaces. But outside London many people were still walking, and to a lesser extent cycling to work (in 1900 bicycles were relatively expensive).

Between 1930 and 1939 the number of licensed cars and other light goods vehicles in the UK doubled from one to two million, representing  the spread  of car ownership  into the middle classes – although car ownership then declined slightly during the war years. Pooley and Turnbull (2000) report that in the 1930s and 40s car owners were often still willing to travel to work by public transport. Cars were still a luxury item owned by a small minority, rather than necessarily being seen as an everyday mode of transport, particularly as public transport was then both widespread and widely used. However, by the 1960s and 70s things had changed and male car owners, at least, had become much more attached to using their cars to commute. This represents a dramatic attitudinal shift away from the car as one means of transport (for the privileged, in some contexts) among many, to the car perceived as the solution for everyday travel.

In the US this shift happened early, with mass motorisation  taking place before World War Two, with the result that by 1960 70 per cent of commuters were driving to work (Department of Transportation, United States 2011). In other countries this happened later and less decisively. In the UK it was only after World War Two that the proportion of jour- neys to work by private car topped 10 per cent; and even by 1960 most British people were still travelling to work by public transport or non-motorised modes. Yet like other European countries Britain followed the US in terms of commuting trends while not (as yet) catching it.  Similarly, men  led the  trend  towards  car-based  commuting,  with  women  following, although  differences  remain.  Pooley  and  Turnbull  (2000: 22) comment  that  in  Britain women were twenty years behind men ‘in adopting motor vehicles as their principal means of commuting’. This is, they argue, partly due to cost and access issues, but also ‘deeper atti- tudinal differences between men and women with respect to driving’. However, they found that in the 1980s women’s attitudes to driving had become closer to men’s.

Transport  Statistics  Great Britain (Df T  2011) conf irms  a substantial  shift in women’s access to cars over this period. In 1975/6 51 per cent of all men classif ied themselves as a ‘main driver’, but only 13 per cent of women did. By 2010, the figure for men had risen slightly to 62 per cent, but had dramatically increased to 50 per cent of women. As Pooley and Turnbull (2000) point out, the transformation of women’s employment over the twentieth century has helped to drive this shift. Women’s employment rates have converged with men’s, and women have increasingly aspired to independent use of a car, especially  as women’s trips are often more complex than men’s due to domestic and family responsibilities. Clearly, the availability of other alternatives (primarily public transport) plays a role: across Britain in 2009/10, 32 per cent of households had two or more cars or vans,  but this falls to 16 per cent in London, where the public transport system is comprehensive and relatively reliable (and where commuting is dominated by public transport – see below). In rural areas, many of which have now become commuter villages with little public transport, more than half of all households own two or more cars or vans (DfT 2011).

Viewed in terms of number of trips, commutes to work only account for a small minority of total journeys undertaken in the UK, and this f igure has steadily decreased. In 2009, com- muting accounted for 15 per cent of all trips, and business trips accounted for 3 per cent of trips. These trips account for 19 per cent and 8 per cent of total distance travelled (Df T 2011a) as they tend to be longer than other regularly undertaken trips (e.g. shopping, escort trips). The commute does possess a relative stability that supports its cultural importance. Around half of all people (more men than women) say that the commute also represents their most regular trip (Lyons and Chatterjee 2008), whereas (for example) trips for leisure and socialisation purposes may be more varied in terms of destination.

The UK Department for Transport (DfT 2011a) reports that since 1995/97, the number of commuting trips has fallen by 16 per cent to 147 (one-way) trips per person per year and the number of business trips by 22 per cent to 30. However, these figures are for all persons, not all employees – so include people not in employment. Df T (2005) reports the number of commuting trips per employee in 2002/03 as being 329 (i.e. 165 round trips), while the ‘all persons’ figure was 150. It is becoming increasingly common for employees to work flexibly to some extent, such as working one day a week from home. Lyons and Chatterjee (2008) cite a survey of 1014 full-time workers in Britain showing that only 62 per cent travelled to work on all weekdays in the survey reference week.

While commute distances have steadily increased over the twentieth century, commute time has remained more stable. The average commute time in the UK (as in the US) is under half an hour, as are the majority of commutes: analysing Social Trends data, ONS (2011) found that 75 per cent of workers in October to December 2009 took half an hour or less to travel from home to work. (However, these figures may disproportionately exclude some groups, such as undocumented  immigrants, who are likely to have longer commutes.) The official statistics contain a small minority for whom time spent is much longer: 5 per cent of workers spend over an hour travelling from home to work. Given the importance of London as an employment centre within the UK economy, alongside its high house prices, many of those people will live in the London commuter belt and travel in by rail and Underground,  or by a mixture of car and public transport. While the one-hour-plus commuters may be extreme outliers, even for those with an average commute  time spent travelling to and from work adds up to nearly 200 hours  a year (TUC  2011), equivalent to approximately five weeks’ work if taken in a block.

There is a clear divide in the UK between London and non-London  commutes; outside London, under 10 per cent of workers use any form of public transport to get to work, while inside London public transport is dominant. However, all regions are dominated by public or private motorised transport. Before mass transit (and before the bicycle became popular and affordable), the limits imposed by walking had helped to limit the spatial separation of home and work. Walking substantial distances for utility purposes then was more socially accept- able than it is now, but even so, most workers could not have been expected to travel the current average trip length of 8.6 miles to and from work by foot (a round trip if walking of over five hours). However, once longer distances became possible, and especially with more automobile commuting, workers could be expected to get to work whatever the distance.

Table 1 Trips and distance travelled by journey purpose, Britain

Trip Purpose % of trips % of distance
Other escort/personal business 20% 14%
Shopping 20% 12%
Visiting friends 16% 20%
Other leisure 15% 22%
Commuting 15% 19%
Education (inc. escort) 11% 4%
Business 3% 8%

Source: DfT 2011 Personal Travel Factsheet.

In other words, worker mobility has become not just enabled but expected (expressed in contractual terms such as ‘you may be expected to work at other sites’ and through job advertisements stating ‘essential driver’ or ‘essential car owner’). Getting employees to work has become  a problem  for  the  worker  rather  than  the  employer,  with  a concomitant  cost burden. In the US, households spend 16 per cent of their annual expenditure on transport – that’s approximately $148 per household per week (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011). In Europe, the percentage is slightly lower: in 2008 the EU-27 average was 13.4 per cent and the EU-15 average was 13.5 per cent (European Commission 2010). The UK DfT reported that in 2010 households spent 13.7 per cent of their income on transport – £77.10 per week (DfT 2011).

The political importance of the commute is bolstered by its visibility in statistical releases. Commuting is relatively easy to measure, while mode split (proportion of overall journeys by mode) is less well recorded. For example, the UK Census of population records ‘main mode of travel to work’ but does not seek information about other journeys. The ‘main mode’ (by distance) under-records cycling and walking components of commutes, and in terms of transport statistics more generally, cycling and walking remain particularly badly measured. Comparable national European statistics for all journeys exist for motorised modes only: with respect to distance travelled by passenger land transport in 2008, the EU-27 average showed cars with an 83.3 per cent share, buses with 9.4 per cent, and railways, trams and metros with 7.3 per cent (Eurostat 2011). Only in Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey was the share held by the private car under 75 per cent.

As a regular activity, with often relatively fixed origin and destination (although often attached to other trips and not undertaken every single work day) the commute does how- ever offer substantial scope for diversity of mode within a broadly motor-dominated system. Within Europe, cities have very different commuting patterns, despite often similar levels of car ownership and use for journeys considered more broadly. A survey in 75 European cities (Eurobarometer 2009) found vastly different levels of car commuting:  from 13 per cent (Paris, France) to 91 per cent (Lefkosia, Cyprus). Cycling levels among the surveyed citizens varied from  60 per cent in Copenhagen  (Denmark) and Groningen  (The Netherlands)  to zero in Lefkosia, Sofia and Burgas (Bulgaria), Valletta (Malta), Barcelona and Oviedo (Spain), Irakleio (Greece), Istanbul,  Ankara and Diyarbakir (Turkey),  and Braga (Portugal), with much variety in between.

What the commuting figures demonstrate is the extent to which the journey from home to work can be decoupled from an overall reliance on the private car. Substantial differences also exist within countries. England has a high level of car dependence, but London is very different both  for commuting  and transport  more generally, having seen  both  an overall dominance of public transport and, within private modes, a gradual fifteen-year shift away from the private car towards the bicycle (Transport for London 2011). Also striking in London is the importance of the bicycle within the city’s inner boroughs: while the bicycle mode share is stuck at around 2 per cent for all trips in Greater London, 7.1 per cent of Inner London residents who commute, do so by bicycle. This has increased the political visibility of cycling, which draws strength from understandings of the commute as an important journey as well as the take-up of cycling by professional employees and City workers.

Rationalising the Commute:  from time wasted to productive time?

The broader definition of the commute as a political issue continues to be shaped by class and income.  Higher-income  employees  have longer commutes,  an ONS  analysis of the 2001 Census finding that ‘[m]anagers have much longer average commuting distances than elementary workers’ (Office for National Statistics 2008: 1). In 2005, people living in house- holds in the highest income quintile in Britain travelled more than twice as far to work as people in households in the lowest income quintile (ONS 2008: 2). With the rise of sophisticated statistics on commuting, concern has grown among policy-makers that expensive people are wasting large amounts of their valuable time commuting.  The imputed cost of congestion (calculated from time spent stuck in traffic multiplied by the ‘value’ of the travellers’ time) assumes time spent travelling is ‘lost’ to the economy and that time is converted into money by individuals making decisions over how and where to travel.

In  accordance with  this,  traffic models  used  by policy-makers  seek  to  minimise  the amount of time that commuters spend travelling (at least those travelling by motor vehicle – bicycle travellers  are poorly included in many such  models,  particularly in lower-cycling countries  where cycling has historically  been associated  with poverty and hence had low political importance).  The UK Department for Transport’s Transport Analysis Guidance (WebTAG) gives details as to how to calculate the value of time for different transport users. For working time, the figures are derived from  average wages  paid to users of different modes of transport. (Cycling advocates have complained that the figures are based on out-of- date statistics that do not reflect the uptake of cycling by middle-class commuters.)

For commuting and other ‘non-work’ time, the ‘market prices’ of £6.46 per hour for commuting  (2010 prices  and values) and £5.71  per hour for other time are derived from calculations of people’s willingness to pay to avoid travel time. In other words, because ‘productive time’ is rewarded by wages it is prioritised over ‘free’ time spent by employees, commuting or not. These figures are used within transport modelling to calculate ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of transport schemes.  Transport  campaigners  have criticised  how  these  models deliver high ‘benefits’ by summing very small travel time reductions for a very large number of  travellers  (Monbiot  2011).  Moreover,  in  WebTAG  reduced  fuel  consumption  is  still included in modelling as a negative feature because of the reduced tax take, although it is now described as a ‘benefit reduction’ rather than a cost increase. The inclusion of reliability remains at an early stage, although ‘the majority of studies find that travel time variability is valued more highly than travel time itself’ (Batley et al. 2008: 84). When modelling commute decisions, people are assumed to make ‘rational’ choices, minimising ‘generalised’ costs of travel, principally with reference to costed time savings and to monetary cost. They are not assumed to take time benefits as distance – for example, moving further away from work because the commute is quicker – although the history of ‘the commute’ tells us this is what has happened on a societal scale.

Table 2: Values of working time per person, 2010 prices and values

Vehicle Occupant Market Price
Taxi/Minicab passenger  57.06
Rail passenger 47.18
Underground passenger 45.90
Walker 37.83
Car driver 33.74
Bus passenger 25.81
Cyclist 21.70

For commuting and other ‘non-work’ time, the ‘market prices’ of £6.46 per hour for commuting (2010 prices and values) and £5.71 per hour for other time are derived from calculations of people’s willingness to pay to avoid travel time.

Source: DfT 2012.

 

In the UK, assumptions about the value of travel time have contributed to the approval of HS2, the multi-billion-pound project to speed up rail travel between Birmingham and London. Long-distance rail travellers tend to be relatively affluent, therefore the time they could save travelling on work business is prioritised, the assumption being that time they spend in the office is highly valuable but the time they spend on a train is value-less. Yet this is undermined by a shift towards conceptualising the commuter (and the business traveller) as productive, supported by recent research (Lyons and Chatterjee 2008). Business travellers often occupy peak-time First Class compartments, but rather than ‘doing nothing’ they are frequently making business calls, using laptops and reviewing documents. Their time on trains may well be spent ‘creating value’ for their employers, and this is one reason why they might choose the train over car travel. However,  Laurier’s (2004) research found car travellers  also spending  time working,  for example making business  calls while stuck  in traffic jams.

Other research has uncovered the wide array of non-work activities that people participate in while travelling: such as watching a film, socialising with friends, reading a book, or listening to music. Increasingly networked public transport users may now not socially inter- act with those in their immediate vicinity, but rather with friends, family and followers via Twitter, Facebook and other applications. Even rail travellers gazing out of the window or snoozing may feel that their time is well spent (Lyons and Chatterjee 2008). This is because travel can provide emotional (as well as mental and physical) benefits. My research has found multiple emotional benefits to cycling, including the creation of personal space apart from often busy and stressful work and home lives. While the assumption embedded in traditional transport modelling is that the ideal commute would be zero, commutes may be perceived to be too short as well as too long.

These new approaches have led to calls to value time spent travelling. Valuing travel time could provide additional reasons for relieving public transport overcrowding (and might mitigate the pressure to reduce congestion). However, Lyons and Chatterjee (2008) point out that valuing travel time positively might lead to encouraging longer commutes, which might not be beneficial for environmental reasons.  More  fundamentally,  the  assumptions  that would remain embodied in transport  modelling and calculations  can be critiqued, as the extent to which people appreciate (or not) different types  of commuting  journeys  will be shaped by cultural, political and infrastructural factors that may be subject to dramatic change on a societal level. The calculation of individual preferences can also be seen as a strategy of governance; (imputed and/or predicted) individual choices apparently guide decisions, rather than political priorities.

Unsustainable and Future Commutes

I want to end by reflecting on the commute in the context of unsustainable transportation (Banister 2008). A growing focus on the commute as environmentally damaging has been given impetus by climate change, yet ‘local’ issues of air pollution and traffic danger often seem more immediately relevant to people living in the vicinity of heavy motor traffic. Taking sustainability seriously requires being critical of technical fixes, recognising the importance of related and deeply embedded social practices, and paying attention to how change might impact on inequalities. In societies where most workers commute, the commute helps to structure everyday lives, with other decisions made in tandem with commuting choices. Commutes are often predominantly individualised, in terms of people travelling alone by car. However, the commute remains communal in that this ‘personal timetable’ (Urry 2008) is still to a large extent publicly shared – hence ‘rush hours’ based around work and school commutes when traffic comes to a standstill.

Often, organisational or technological trends are seen as heralding an answer to the ‘unsustainable commute’. However, such trends may be incorporated into problematic systems of practice and/or aggravate them.  One  example might be the increase  in occasional teleworking, which might actually support the continued lengthening of commute journeys, through making such journeys more bearable if they are only undertaken three or four days per week. Shorter and more diverse working weeks may be an attractive solution to a range of policy problems (NEF 2011), yet if commutes become less regularised this may make  it  harder  to  create the  varied and  less  car-based  solutions  seen  currently,  which depend on a certain regularity. And while public transport can be seen as a ‘green’ alternative to the car, this depends on the type of public transport and the role it plays within systems of production and consumption. Long-distance high-speed rail commutes are not necessarily sustainable even though they are more energy-efficient per passenger kilometre than those by car.

Full-time home working – another mooted solution to the commute problem – has dis-advantages including the lack of contact with others, the loss of demarcation between home and work, health and safety issues, and potentially increased physical inactivity. One possible alternative might be the use of remote off ice centres to allow desk-based employees to work relatively locally in office environments. Such arrangements are diverse and currently poorly monitored: some call centres might be an example of this, but are not necessarily counted as remote off ices, while on the more ‘informal’ end people may use café wi-fi as an alternative to working from home, yet be recorded as ‘home’ workers.

As work patterns continue to change, so will relationships between ‘work’ and ‘home’ – already complicated by school, educational, and shopping trips. The potentially greater use of home- and remote-working could transform and/or deepen divides between different groups of employees. For those whose presence is necessary at the workplace (e.g. for cleaning, catering, caring and manufacturing jobs), the commute will remain compulsory. Potentially there could be a turnaround where more elite groups increasingly E-work and so do less commuting, but where commuting becomes a burden placed on working-class employees whose physical presence is required. This could be further complicated by disparities in house prices preventing lower-income workers from moving nearer employment centres in some locations.

Because commutes are complex and also involve travelling to non-work locations, changes in shopping and educational provision will shape the future journey to work.  If distance learning becomes more popular, this will shape educational and related commutes; online shopping may change people’s travel needs on journeys to work (through reducing the need to carry goods). Policy related to school provision and ‘school choice’ will affect how parents are able to plan their work journeys. The resultant changes in commuting patterns will then themselves shape the way that people view their home and work lives. In a world where oil dependency is still increasing, yet is ever more unsustainable, will the ability to commute, or the ability not to commute, become seen as a luxury? If systems of production are forced into greater localisation, will this be accompanied by increased or decreased inequality (Dennis and Urry 2009)? The ‘commute problem’ will not be solved by a technical f ix to the existing system, if at all.

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