The commute completely transformed Britain. Is it over for ever? | Commuting

August 24, 2020

It is 7.45 on a Monday morning and I am heading for the office. It is my first visit to the Guardian for more than four months, but the prime minister wants us back at work. Commuters are reliable, law-abiding creatures of habit, cogs in a greater machine; I am doing what I am told.

On the way out of the house, I pass a 1910 Underground poster in the hall, extolling the merits of my particular suburb. “Live in a New Neighbourhood,” it reads, under a picture, by the artist Alfred France, of a brown country mouse welcoming a grey town mouse to a semi-rural idyll. “24 minutes from Piccadilly Circus, including change at Baker St. 6d per day for season ticket.”

One hundred and ten years on (and for a bit more than 6d), I am living that same dream. But at Dollis Hill station, now on the Jubilee line, there are very few other commuters waiting on the platform. Before Covid-19, in the rush hour, you would often have to ruck and maul just to get on to a train. Today, there are only three people, masked and well-distanced, in the carriage. It does not get much busier as the journey continues. A couple more at Willesden Green, once a rural area with a few grand houses – until about 1870, when the builders moved in and began turning it into a working-class suburb for a new breed of commuter.

At Finchley Road, I change on to the Metropolitan line, which brings commuters in from the more affluent (and further afield) mock-Tudor suburbs that became known as Metro-land and were celebrated by Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But, again, there are very few commuters today. The capital – normally the lungs of the country, sucking in workers in the morning and exhaling them in the late afternoon – is breathing like a hibernating bear.

The tube has never been a place for striking up friendly conversations. With masks and distancing, it is more eyes-down-make-no-contact than ever. Social media is an easier space to approach strangers. My eye was caught by a tweet from a passenger on the 8.08 from Surbiton to Waterloo, usually one of the busiest commuter trains in the country, with a video clip showing the empty carriage. Surbiton, AKA Suburbiton, is quintessential commuter belt, home to Tom and Barbara in the 70s sitcom The Good Life and likely the inspiration for the fictional Climthorpe, where the salaryman Reggie hit his midlife crisis in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

A commuter at Vauxhall station, London, in May. The number of bus journeys taken in the capital is down by 50%. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

“The 8.08’s usually pretty busy – I’d be standing in the door somewhere,” Charlie Deacon, who posted the video, tells me on the phone. He did not chat to his fellow commuters. “I recognised the same people most days, but I didn’t really know anyone.”

Deacon, who works for a renewable energy company, worked from home throughout lockdown, but he has started coming in to the office once a week. “I’ve always been a proponent of flexible working, but it is also nice to have that one day in the office, to see the whites of people’s eyes.”

Team meetings and complex projects are better dealt with in person than via video calls and endless emails, he says. But Deacon never wants to commute five days a week again. “I’m a lot less stressed, I don’t have to deal with the train, I’m saving lots of money; I’m getting more sleep, more time to exercise, with my partner, to do other things in the evenings … It’s totally positive.”

The journey, when he makes it, is a breeze, with seats available and space to breathe and distance, as his video shows. “This is about as busy as it gets,” mumbles a woman wearing a hi-vis jacket, a mask and a visor as she directs a handful of people in and out of King’s Cross station, where I emerge on my journey to work.

This is reflected in the government statistics monitoring transport during the pandemic. Although the numbers are not broken down by the purpose of the journey, the use of national rail and London Underground services so far in August is about 30% of what it would be normally. Bus journeys are well down, too: about 40% outside London and 50% inside. Only car use is back to somewhere approaching normal (about 90%).

Once upon a time, people walked to work, which tended to be in a field near where they lived. But the Industrial Revolution changed all that. You know the story: with industrialisation came urbanisation. Cities grew: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, as well as London. People flocked to them for work that was better paid than the work in the field and not seasonal. The downside was that these cities became filthy, overcrowded, polluted and diseased places.

So, from the latter part of the 18th century into the Victorian era, those who could afford it started to move out to new suburbs and even the countryside beyond. As it was too far to walk to work, spiders’ webs began to appear on city maps – suburban rail networks. “Up to then, the purpose of the train was to get from one city to another,” says the author and historian Simon Webb, who probably knows more about the history of commuting than anyone else, having written a book on the subject. “As commuting took off, the purpose of railways became to bring people from one part of a city to another.”

Webb’s book, Commuters: The History of a British Way of Life, looks at how commuting shaped our cities and gave rise to suburban railways, buses and underground trains (the first passengers rode the Metropolitan railway in London in 1863). From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of commuting was steady, with the odd surge, such as when buses or trams were introduced. Then, between the wars, it was like rush hour: one-third of the British population became commuters, thanks to unplanned development, with new urban areas springing up on the fringes of cities, and because of the mutually beneficial relationships that developed between railway companies and builders.

Think of a commuter and whom do you see? Suited, probably male, takes himself quite seriously, a little humourless. Or the Reggie Perrin character, trapped in a railway carriage of hell, somewhere near Surbiton, but going nowhere in life. But today a commuter is as likely to be a nurse, a security guard, a cleaner, a cabinet minister or a “super-commuter” jetting in from her place in Nice every week.

Queues at Piccadilly bus station, 1946. One-third of Britons had become commuters between the world wars. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Since the second world war, one method of commuting has grown to eclipse all others: driving. In normal times, 60% of all journeys to work are by car or van. In spite of all their historical associations, trains account for only about 5% of the total.

Even before Covid-19, Webb was wondering whether the commuter was dying out, because of the gentrification and recolonisation of city centres. It is happening to the centres of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and London – right here in King’s Cross, to where I have commuted. Until recently, it was dirty and dodgy after dark. Now it has sprouted shiny towers, desirable vertical urban living spaces. If I were wealthier, I might aspire to relocate here from my suburb. I can picture the poster: town mouse encouraging suburban mouse to come to where it is all happening.

The pandemic means that, for many, it is no longer necessary to leave home, let alone your neighbourhood, to go to work. This may have the effect of making people more insular and isolated, says Webb. He tells me about some people who, during the Crusades, took off from a village in Gloucestershire; when they reached Gloucester, they thought they had reached Jerusalem and prepared to fight the infidel. “Your outlook will probably become as restricted as that of a medieval peasant,” he jokes. At least, I think he is joking.

A note of caution from Joe Moran, a social historian and a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. Many key workers, he points out, don’t have the luxury of telecommuting “because they can’t do their work remotely. It’s non-key work that is more likely to disappear into fibre-optic cables and wireless routes.” Bankers in the City of London may be able to do their jobs from home, but that is not the case for security guards or supermarket staff.

Commuters on a rush-hour train in London, 1975. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

As a cultural historian, Moran is wary of the idea that things change suddenly and dramatically. “I feel that there is a natural inertia,” he says. “Even if there are very good reasons why people should commute less, that’s not how people engage with the world and other people. We often do things that don’t make any sense, because we are social beings.”

Just as being at work is not only about the work, so commuting is not only about commuting, says Moran. While the situationist philosophers of 60s Paris may have regarded commuting as an unwanted product of capitalism, with its unpaid labour and alienating dead space, “some people actually quite like the commute, if it’s not too long. Partly because it’s time alone. It’s a sort of third space between home and work. Particularly with new technology, you can do lots of things with that time,” he says. “There is a slightly social aspect to it as well: you spend time with these intimate strangers; often you see the same people on the train every day. There is a minimal community to it.”

It is more than minimal for Anna Horsley, who has a train friend. It started one day when Horsley got some bad news in a phone call; the woman next to her could not help overhearing, so asked if she was all right and offered a tissue. They got chatting. Soon they were taking the same trains every day, the 7.42 out and the 6.30 home. They have seen each other since they started working from home. “She’s invited me to her wedding,” Horsley says. “She’s gone beyond train friend – she’s a proper mate now.”

Horsley, a social researcher, is – or was – a super-commuter. Her journey from Northampton to Westminster, by bike, train, tube and foot, took two hours. Then two hours home again in the evening. And she misses it. “I certainly don’t miss the cost of it, but I miss the routine it gave me. I find it harder to switch off and to get into work mode – I get out of bed and walk into my office, so I have no mental preparation for the day. And I tend to work past my hours.”

Moran concedes that, when this is over: “People will have got used to working from home and it will be tolerated more. My workplace tended to encourage people to be present before; presumably, those kind of attitudes will change. I think there’ll be less commuting, but I’m sure it will still go on. The key is to be flexible: if people want to go into work, they should be able to; if they can work from home, that’s great as well.”

This makes sense. Where does it leave me, though? I know where I am physically: I have done my commute, from a suburb created by commuting, along the world’s first metropolitan commuter railway, to a city centre abandoned by all but the poor that is now seeing the gradual return of the wealthy. I am here; I have reached the office. But I don’t need to be here. I am not going in – I am off home, to work.

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