Really, there are few worse ways to start the day. Barely awake, destined for their desks, and rammed, elbow-to-nose-to-ribs-to-cheek-to-chest inside a metallic box – little more than a glorified cattle cart – several million people are shaken, bumped and jolted into work.
The cramp, the squeeze, the astringent smell of other people’s body odour (or, worse, breath) as they shuffle, shove and scratch away the commute.
And that’s just the tube. Above-ground the hell continues: millions of commuters – “alarm clock Britain” Nick Clegg would call them – are shuttled from home to work by train, by bus and by car, struggling through overcrowded carriages, listening to other people’s phone calls, sitting, idly, behind a smoggy snake of traffic. To make things worse, most of us don’t have a choice: we need to work, ergo we need to get to work. And what a way to get there.
Things don’t look likely to improve much, either. In November last year, the Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that rail passengers will face “intolerable” overcrowding by 2014. A scheme launched three years ago to mitigate the problem, costing some £9 billion, hasn’t produced anywhere near the results anticipated. Within three years, we can expect the shortfall of places on rush-hour trains to increase some 25 per cent. At the same time, rail fares will climb steadily. In the next year alone, the cost of a ticket will rise by an average of 6.2 per cent. For the unfortunate customers of Southeastern Trains’ services, that figure will look more like 8 per cent. Thanks to government plans to cut the annual rail budget by £5 billion, future increases will be even steeper. For the average British commuter, the outlook is bleak.
So what to do? Everyone is familiar with those fairytales of foreign transport: the Hong Kong underground where food and drink is banned, the Continental high-speeders, which whisk you from A to B as you munch on your morning pastry (definitely not purchased from Upper Crust). But the possibility of Britain’s cranky, cantankerous old transport system ever reaching such heights seems remote. Yes, Londoners are due to enjoy the (relative) luxury of air-conditioning on some tube services before long – but, cool air aside, there’s little respite in sight. A call to City Hall yields little in the way of concrete prospects. If the commute is to change, it seems, it’s down to commuters to do it.
Dr Glenn Williams specialises in transport psychology at the Nottingham Trent University. Responsible for 2007’s study, “Resilience and Positive Coping as Protection from Commuting-Related Stressors and Strain”, he advocates the small-scale adoption of habits to improve one’s quality of life incrementally. “The commuters who get the most from their journey are, I’ve found, the ones who treat it constructively – they see it as a bit of me-time, or as a chance to read something.”
Of course, “me-time” is all well and good; though it’s rather difficult when your space is shared with several dozen other strangers – all the more so if you don’t have a seat. “That is really very important to peoples’ wellbeing - physical and mental,” notes Williams. “People who have seats are much better off.” But even in situations where one is forced to stand, squashed into a corner, there are things that can be done to mitigate – however mildly – the unpleasantness of the trip: “The advice I tend to give people is to mark out their territory. Whether that’s a matter of holding their briefcase or bag in a different way or of putting headphones in to drown out background noise, it’s a constant negotiation between you and your surroundings.”
Given the strain of the circumstances, it’s tempting to wonder at what stage the commute – with all its daily indignities and struggles – becomes a violation, of sorts. If we’ve come to expect certain comforts and privileges in society as a whole, at what point are transport providers reneging on their duty to satisfy them – to provide value for taxes and train fares? Williams harbours no such illusions. “It’s about our expectations. Look at Japan – where people are actually employed to push people into carriages. All that’s expected is that the train gets them to work.”
Ultimately, for those really driven mad by the daily grind, there really is only one solution: change it. Key to this concept is the notion of exercise; cycling and walking to work opens up more pleasant options to thousands, as the success of schemes like London’s Cycle Hire testify. That’s not, though, always an option; not everyone lives within a short bike ride of their office. Says Williams: “There is a point at which you need to ask, is this worth it? It’s a cost-benefit analysis. Is the time, the expense, the experience worth the destination?” With more and more people choosing to work from home – up by 291,000 between 2006 and 2008 – it seems that the answer to that is, increasingly, no.Reuse content