Susie Rushton: Next stop – cities we want to live in, not commute to

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Is this the beginning of the end for mass commuting by rail? This week the put-upon passenger standing on the 7.38am from Sevenoaks to Cannon Street is looking at a 5.82 per cent hike in the price of an annual ticket (up to £2,980). That figure is a round average, but there are commuters who are even worse off, some finding that the New Year has brought a giant 10 per cent escalation in travelling costs.

The Sevenoaks run is a journey I've endured myself in the past, and despite its relative brevity (a merciful 25 minutes) the drawbacks were enough to firmly cement in my mind a resolution to live in the metropolis. But plenty of Britons still aspire to maintain a semi-rural lifestyle, usually funded by a costly and gruelling commute to the cities where better-paid work is found. Thanks to the greed of our private rail companies, that may be a dream many will soon have to abandon; as the price of a season ticket continues to soar above flatlining salaries, pretty soon the sums simply won't add up.

Consumer groups are threatening to jam the Treasury switchboard in protest this week, but from a lifestyle point of view, what's the solution? The burgeoning numbers of employees who now work remotely might have the right idea. Companies may begin to find that encouraging home working isn't only economical – saving them costs in overheads – but the only way to attract the best talent.

The second big change that needs to happen is a transformation of our cities, and London in particular, into more liveable places, so that those who really want to avoid the commute can do so.

Today the most passionate aspiration of any urban professional in London is eventually to leave the city – not such a widely held desire in Copenhagen, or Paris, or New York, I'd imagine.

The urge to flee to the suburbs might be less keenly felt among workers if traffic were tamed, infrastructure was improved, and the most pleasant parts of town weren't allowed to become ghettos for the foreign super-rich.

Londoners aren't immune from the price hikes: today we face a price rise of 5 per cent on the cost of Oyster card journeys on tubes and buses, an above-inflation figure that is being trumpeted by government as a "reprieve" – but it's already clear that the cost of transport will be a key issue in the mayoral elections in May.

Passengers are told the increase in the cost of our tickets is in the name of "investment", but this is a very narrow definition of the word. If there are too many people trying to use an overloaded network – the reason given by train companies and tube operators for why they need extra cash – we need to find new ways of living and working without the commute. Simply pricing people out of the transport system isn't the answer.