Commuting: the end of the road?

We, the herd that makes its daily progress from London’s frowsty margins to
the grand terminus of Victoria station and back again ? we could keep the
Discovery Channel going for years. They’d have to anthropomorphise us a bit,
of course. Make us seem a little more human. Speculate on the back stories
of the more eye-catching among us: the bloke in the beanie hat who reads
Star Trek books; the Borough of Bromley’s least-convincing tranny; the
well-groomed businessman who, with the excessive delicacy of Chaplin eating
bootlaces in The Gold Rush, produces a can of street-drinker’s lager from
his briefcase each morning and sips genteelly; the blazered schoolboys who
bray about their next skiing holiday and call each other “blood”. The only
missing element would be the obligatory wildlife doc shot of the two-backed
beast. For that, you’d have to climb on board long after office hours.

But even at 8.50am, there’s plenty that Attenborough might reflect upon in a
whispered piece to camera. After scudding through the tunnel at Sydenham
Hill (a black chasm unpenetrated by any mobile phone signal) we halt at West
Dulwich, where the pupils of the college disembark and the parents of their
friends climb on ? and are immediately punished for their affluence by the
discovery that every seat is taken by someone who boarded at the cheaper
points further down the line. The train then grinds over the viaduct that
rises by the side of Brockwell Park, where you can just glimpse the brick
enclosure by the gate, inside which a synod of the cider-and-smack-raddled
usually convene. At Herne Hill station, we’re joined by a noticeably
younger, thinner and blonder crowd ? most of whom jump out again once the
train has reached Brixton, where the go-getting get off to join the Victoria
underground line.

The remaining passengers are then free to luxuriate in the great privileges of
the last five minutes of the journey ? an elevated view of the old lags of
Battersea Dogs Home, yapping behind wire fences; a glorious eyeful of
Battersea Power Station, that great carcass of 20th-century Modernism; a
long clear rush over the waters of the Thames, that hurls us forward into
the gloom of Victoria. At which point, the sightseers disembark and crush
down into the Tube system ? only to discover that every soft surface has
been bagsied by those people canny enough to have left the overland line and
gone subterranean at Brixton.

There are 5.3 million Britons who spend more than an hour a day travelling to
work and back. For the average Londoner, about 225 hours a year are engaged
in pursuing the cramped and sweaty rituals of the commute. This number,
totted up annually by the TUC, rose steadily between 1997 and 2007. That’s
roughly the same span of time for which advocates of digital technology have
been declaring that the internet and shiny new communications devices will
liberate us from the diurnal drudgery of travelling to work pressed into the
armpit of a stranger. The latest figures, released last October, suggest the
average time that an employee spends commuting is at last beginning to
decline ? but only at the pace of a tram delayed by passenger action at
Beckenham Junction. The mystery is why a practice as inefficient as
commuting ? a business that seems to be of so little value to either our
economic or domestic lives ? is so tolerated by the people who endure it.

It’s hard to find a statistic that will explain this attachment. Four-wheeled
journeys to work in this country splurge 50 billion litres of CO2 into the
air every day. The CBI reckons that the congestion this traffic produces
loses UK businesses some £20bn each year ? excluding the £13.5bn that
commuters pay annually for the privilege of making these trips in the first

Strong forces are at work. Our commuting habits are, to some extent,
predestined. The socio-economic fate of many suburban areas was sealed 150
years ago by the ticket-pricing decisions of 19th-century railway companies.
Purley and Surbiton owe some of their poshness to the fact that you couldn’t
travel from them on the low-cost worker’s fare ? as you could, for instance,
to Camden. And this is probably the reason why I am proud to live in the
patch of south-east London called Sydenham (home, over the years, to
Shackleton the explorer, Grove the musicologist, Rolf Harris the face of the
Stylophone, as well as Kelly Brook and Billy Zane, the slightly frightening
Hollywood couple) but closeted about my reliance on the train from Penge
East down the road ? a fact exposing my embarrassing proximity to a suburb
with a name that sounds like a diagnosis from a clap clinic; regarded since
Edwardian times as painfully unfashionable.

Railing against the pointlessness of the lengthy commute also has a long
history: I’ve read an obscure novel from the 1860s in which a character
complains that he lives too far from his workplace, and wouldn’t it be
peachy if we all went back to living over the shop? (And this in an era when
city centres were punctuated by abattoirs, sugar refineries and catgut
processing plants.) Technology has made such aspirations easier to realise.
Many of us are now going into the office for one fewer days a week than we
once did: 3.5 million Britons work mainly from their own homes ? at least
2.4 million have been enabled to do that by communications technology. The
economic arguments are powerful ? the average annual cost of maintaining a
desk for an employee in an office, for instance, is £7,000. But on the
evidence of my commute, gadgetry is not pulling us all irresistibly back to
our homes. Instead, it is commuting with us.

By the time we have emerged from the darkness of the Sydenham Hill tunnel,
those of us on the 8.50 from Penge East with laptops in our bags have fished
them out, powered them up and begun the painful ballet of two-finger typing
while protecting our plasma screens from the pointy threat of stray
umbrellas. The evidence from inside the carriage suggests that we have
agreed to use our laptops and mobiles and Blackberry handsets to start our
working day an hour before we clock on. The train and the bus have become
the pseudopodia of the office.

And because there are no water-coolers or kitchen corners on public transport,
an industry has been spawned to serve those needs: commuter versions of the
needle-beaked birds that jigger the parasites out from between the fat-rolls
of hippopotami. Flocks of neat young women, generally Polish, who perch in
nooks and corners along the way, ready to bend over the Gaggia and froth
something up for us. The helicopter eyes in the sky that swoop over cities
and can send, via radio stations or text alerts to our phones and MP3
players, the numbers necessary to calculate how late we’re going to be for
work ? or, at the other end of the day, whether we’re going to break our
promises to our children to be home before bedtime. These have strengthened
the culture of commuting: we now do it in an informed way, with a cappuccino
in one hand and a mobile in the other. They have not, yet, hastened its end.

“The commute itself is, I think, greatly misunderstood,” says Robert
Bruegmann, the author of Sprawl, a spirited defence of Western suburban
living. “Many people, particularly economists, think of it as merely an
inefficiency. They think that most people would reduce the commute as much
as possible.” The facts don’t bear it out. Most of us, when questioned, will
say that we are reassured by the distance that the commute puts between work
and home; that going into the office saves us from the seductions of the
biscuit tin and television programmes in which fat people in sportswear have
DNA tests and shout at each other. Some people travel into work, it seems,
even when they don’t have a workplace to go to. “They often find some place
else to work,” reasons Bruegmann, “whether it’s a Starbuck’s café or a
borrowed room or a rented office.So there are large numbers of people who
actually choose to commute when it would be easier not to.”

At the opposite end of the day, during the bustle of the evening rush hour,
those people are more visible. I think I have spotted them on the concourse
of Victoria station. They’d be all too obvious to a seasoned observer of the
conduct of beasts: Bill Oddie, perhaps, squatting in his hide by the
doughnut concession; or Kate Humble, stalking specimens along Platform 3;
the office boy trying to stuff a sly bacon double cheeseburger into his
mouth without besmirching his Homer Simpson tie with incriminating
lard-spots; the hare-eyed cottager biding his time by the noodle stand next
to the gents; the laptop-owners tapping away at a coffee bar table; the
lovers gnawing away at each other in the fatal five minutes before the
trains arrive that will carry them back to their spouses. They would reach
only one conclusion. We are creatures of habit, we of the herd that gathers
each morning to catch the 8.52am. And creatures of appetite, too.

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