Extreme commuting is a no-life sentence

London used to be populated by its workers. Not any more. The number of people travelling long distances to work is rising as relentlessly as the capital's house prices

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One of my favourite pop songs from the late Eighties was a scarifying little number by an outfit called the Fatima Mansions entitled "Only Losers take the Bus". This, careful examination of its lyrics revealed, was a satirical riposte to Margaret Thatcher's widely quoted remark – although no definite authentication exists – that anyone over the age of 26 who resorted to this form of public transport was a failure. Inevitably, Mrs T's shade was much invoked at the unveiling of last week's Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on the nature of modern commuting, which suggested that of all the modes of transportation available to the hard-pressed employee, the bus journey is the one most likely to leave you anxious and dissatisfied.

According to the ONS, no form of commuting enhances overall levels of satisfaction and self-esteem. Worse, its study of 60,000 travellers found that each 10-minute increase in journey time has a significant impact on the well-being of the commuter. On the other hand, once the trip to work exceeded 90 minutes, the harmful effects began to disappear. This slackening off confirmed the existence of an entity known as the "extreme commuter" – the man, or woman, prepared to give up three or four hours of his, or her, working day for the opportunity both to pursue a prestige job and inhabit the rural idyll that is apparently the average suburbanite's dream. Even then, the report carried dire warnings of the fine balance that needed to be struck between the costs (financial and psychological) of 20 hours a week on the road and the sylvan bower with its winking light that awaits the exhausted traveller back home in Much Binding on the Marsh.

The "extreme commuter" appears so regularly in demographic updates these days that it will be a miracle if, like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman before him, he doesn't become a prime target for next year's electoral pitch. A recent Radio 4 exposé of the phenomenon came crammed with horror stories of single mothers rising at 5am in the Essex hinterland to drive their offspring to the childminder's before proceeding, via train, Tube and pavement to some sweating house in Threadneedle Street or Holborn Circus. Ominously enough, there was very little in it about that search for the fulfilling rural lifestyle that we hear so much about, and a whole lot more about ground-down wage serfs forced into five- or six-hour daily round-trips by domestic circumstance or the lack of affordable housing near their place of work.

Naturally, the extreme commuter is not a new phenomenon. Labouring at my first job in a public relations agency off Oxford Street in the mid-Eighties I knew a printer's representative who came in every morning from Poole in Dorset. But the past couple of decades have seen a dramatic hike in the distances people are prepared, or sometimes compelled, to travel to their desks. Rural Norfolk, for example, is full of City types urging their expensive cars along the back-lines at 6am to catch early trains from Norwich (a mere two hours to Liverpool Street) or Diss (one hour 40 minutes.) I was never quite an extreme commuter myself, but, even so, the brisk walk to East Putney Tube station, followed by the 18-stop journey along the District line, followed by another brisk walk back across the Thames to Hay's Galleria – the route to work in the mid-Nineties – seemed to be a horribly compelling argument for ceasing to live in London as soon as possible.

It takes a piece of research such as the ONS survey to demonstrate quite how profoundly working conditions in and around the big conurbations have deteriorated in the past few years, and how consistently they have confounded the predictions that were made about them at the beginning of the internet age. In most City offices, back in the Nineties, as the gadgetry grew more wonderful, and people's expectations of it yet more wonderful still, the talk was always of "telecommuting" and of how, 20 years hence, office life in EC2 and EC3 would mostly be conducted by video link. Curiously, the need for face-to-face communication won out, and the office blocks are as crowded as ever they were. The difference, in strict historical terms, is that, whereas the clerks and middle managers of the Twenties and Thirties went home to Islington or Holloway – Mr Pooter's manor in The Diary of a Nobody – or the terraces of the Fulham Road (originally built as "artisans' cottages" in the 19th century), their 21st-century equivalents are more likely to return to Harlow or Welwyn Garden City.

Why is this? Mr Pooter's nook in N7 was his park and his pleasaunce, to borrow Gerard Manley Hopkins' description of Oxford, but his debased modern descendant is ever more unwilling, or unable, to make the effort. The first chapters of practically every literary autobiography set in the early years of the 20th century reveal just how (relatively) easy it was to both work in central London and to live somewhere within walking distance. Hugh Walpole, for instance, coming to London in 1909, was able to establish himself in a Chelsea bedsitter for four shillings a week, while bringing home £3 for reviewing books for The Daily Telegraph. The twentysomething Anthony Powell, employed at a publishers in Covent Garden, was able to live in Mayfair. This kind of existence would be impossible now. Powell, on his publisher's salary, would either find himself sharing a house with five other people in somewhere like Clapham or having to resort to some impossibly far-off suburb. Similarly, the chances of any ordinary family – "ordinary" in this case defined as earning less than £150,000 a year – being able to live in central London grow ever more remote. Even a decade and a half ago to exchange a four-bedroom house in Putney for a five-bedroom one cost around £100,000, so heaven knows what the figure is now.

The chief consequence of the boom in London property prices that began in the late Nineties was a flight not merely to the suburbs but to rural bolt-holes that now extend far beyond the M25 corridor to the most sequestered parts of Essex, Suffolk and Buckinghamshire. Meanwhile, the psychological effects of living a substantial part of your life in transit have scarcely begun to be investigated. And while it is perfectly possible to read a book or watch a film on your laptop, the orthodoxies of the commuting life are usually much more insidious than this. For most commuters, in fact, the homeward journey is less a chance to unwind or catch up on your sleep than an opportunity for your boss to harass you with superfluous emails.

And so extreme commuting, like most manifestations of the modern workplace, eventually declares itself as another aspect of the thraldom in which the average citizen is held by the economic forces that billow around him, a textbook example of what an unfettered market can do to individual freedoms. Though it defies all known tenets of economic liberalism, Ed Miliband's scheme to stop the sale of London properties to foreign moneybags and encourage the idea of big cities being lived in by the people who work in them is a step in the right direction. We have nothing to lose but our season tickets.

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