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

It is 7.45 on a Monday morning and I’m heading for the workplace. It’s my first discuss with to the Dad or mum for greater than 4 months, however the top minister desires us again at paintings. Commuters are dependable, law-abiding creatures of addiction, cogs in a better device; I’m doing what I’m advised.

At the approach out of the home, I cross a 1910 Underground poster within the corridor, extolling the deserves of my explicit suburb. “Are living in a New Neighbourhood,” it reads, underneath an image, by way of the artist Alfred France, of a brown nation mouse welcoming a gray the town mouse to a semi-rural idyll. “24 mins from Piccadilly Circus, together with trade at Baker St. 6d consistent with day for season price ticket.”

100 and ten years on (and for a little bit greater than 6d), I’m residing that very same dream. However at Dollis Hill station, now at the Jubilee line, there are only a few different commuters ready at the platform. Prior to Covid-19, within the rush hour, you may ceaselessly must ruck and maul simply to get directly to a educate. These days, there are handiest 3 other folks, masked and well-distanced, within the carriage. It does now not get a lot busier as the adventure continues. A pair extra at Willesden Inexperienced, as soon as a rural house with a couple of grand properties – till about 1870, when the developers moved in and started turning it right into a working-class suburb for a brand new breed of commuter.

At Finchley Street, I modify directly to the Metropolitan line, which brings commuters in from the extra prosperous (and additional afield) mock-Tudor suburbs that turned into referred to as Metro-land and have been celebrated by way of Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Orchestral Manoeuvres within the Darkish. However, once more, there are only a few commuters these days. The capital – generally the lungs of the rustic, sucking in staff within the morning and exhaling them within the overdue afternoon – is respiring like a hibernating undergo.

The tube hasn’t ever been a spot for hanging up pleasant conversations. With mask and distancing, it’s extra eyes-down-make-no-contact than ever. Social media is an more straightforward house to method strangers. My eye used to be stuck by way of a tweet from a passenger on the 8.08 from Surbiton to Waterloo, in most cases one of the most busiest commuter trains within the nation, with a video clip appearing the empty carriage. Surbiton, AKA Suburbiton, is quintessential commuter belt, house to Tom and Barbara within the 70s sitcom The Excellent Existence and most probably the muse for the fictitious Climthorpe, the place the salaryman Reggie hit his midlife disaster in The Fall and Upward push of Reginald Perrin.

A commuter at Vauxhall station, London, in May
A commuter at Vauxhall station, London, in Might. The choice of bus trips taken within the capital is down by way of 50%. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP by means of Getty Photographs

“The eight.08’s in most cases lovely busy – I’d be status within the door someplace,” Charlie Deacon, who posted the video, tells me at the telephone. He didn’t chat to his fellow commuters. “I recognised the similar other folks maximum days, however I didn’t in reality know any person.”

Deacon, who works for a renewable power corporate, labored from house during lockdown, however he has began coming in to the workplace as soon as every week. “I’ve at all times been a proponent of versatile operating, however it’s also great to have that at some point within the workplace, to peer the whites of other folks’s eyes.”

Staff conferences and sophisticated initiatives are higher handled in individual than by means of video calls and unending emails, he says. However Deacon by no means desires to travel 5 days every week once more. “I’m so much much less wired, I don’t must maintain the educate, I’m saving numerous cash; I’m getting extra sleep, extra time to workout, with my spouse, to do different issues within the evenings … It’s utterly sure.”

The adventure, when he makes it, is a breeze, with seats to be had and house to respire and distance, as his video presentations. “That is about as busy because it will get,” mumbles a lady dressed in a hi-vis jacket, a masks and a visor as she directs a handful of other folks out and in of King’s Move station, the place I emerge on my adventure to paintings.

That is mirrored within the executive statistics tracking delivery right through the pandemic. Even supposing the numbers don’t seem to be damaged down by way of the aim of the adventure, using nationwide rail and London Underground services and products to this point in August is ready 30% of what it might be generally. Bus trips are properly down, too: about 40% outdoor London and 50% inside of. Best automotive use is again to someplace drawing near customary (about 90%).

Although there are superb the reason why other folks will have to travel much less, that’s now not how other folks have interaction with the arena

As soon as upon a time, other folks walked to paintings, which tended to be in a box close to the place they lived. However the Commercial Revolution modified all that. the tale: with industrialisation got here urbanisation. Towns grew: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, in addition to London. Other people flocked to them for paintings that used to be higher paid than the paintings within the box and now not seasonal. The disadvantage used to be that those towns turned into filthy, overcrowded, polluted and diseased puts.

So, from the latter a part of the 18th century into the Victorian generation, those that may have enough money it began to transport out to new suburbs or even the geographical region past. Because it used to be too some distance to stroll to paintings, spiders’ webs started to appear on town maps – suburban rail networks. “As much as then, the aim of the educate used to be to get from one town to any other,” says the writer 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
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
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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