19 February 2014

A gigantic shunting of workers

Last week the Office for National Statistics published research that found commuters who spend between 60 and 120 minutes travelling to work have lower life satisfaction, see their employment as less worthwhile, have lower happiness levels and greater anxiety. This in itself is hardly surprising, but it is useful to be reminded by hard data that ‘commuting is clearly and negatively associated with personal well-being’. Unsurprisingly the research suggested that people who work from home as the happiest: I’m self-employed, and the rare occasions I’m rammed into a rush-hour Northern Line train remind me just how lucky I am to avoid the daily grind on the underground.

Commuter at Waterloo
Our enthusiasm for commuting over long distances owes much to our historically excellent infrastructure, but also the failure to make modern city life accord with modern needs – not my words, but those of The Spectator back in 1964, which recognised that the ‘gigantic shunting of workers across the London conurbation’ was batty. This is particularly so when you recognise that drivers pay hefty fuel bills and require government to build costly roads, and that railway commuters need billions spent on capacity solutions like Crossrail (and Crossrail 2) while paying eye-watering amounts for season tickets. If your daily commute is an hour each way every day of the week, come Friday you’ll have lost a cumulative working day paying for the privilege of sitting in a traffic jam with cyclists whizzing past you. Personally I’d rather spend my time with my family and friends, rather than listening to Southern tell me that yet again they ‘are’ sorry to announce that blah, blah, blah.

For many people the daily pilgrimage to work is an unwitting yet rational response to decades of poor urban planning. Escaping to the countryside to exercise what Nick Boles describes as ‘a right to a home with a little bit of ground around it to bring your family up in’ is perfectly reasonable given some of the shocking housing built across the country in recent decades. After all, if your home is little more than a shoebox, having a garden for your children to play in is very sensible!

Yet ripping up the green belt to build garden cities simply compounds the cost and misery of commuting. Instead we need higher-quality housing in London and our other urban areas that entices people into living closer to where they work, and to challenge what the ONS describes as ‘inertia’ towards our rigid commuting patterns. Historically Britain’s inner city areas were much more densely populated than the leafy outer suburbs: today the reverse is true.

Fortunately there is hope. New homes are being built at sites like Battersea Power Station to higher design standards, and there is a renewed interest in promoting walking and cycling to work. And adopting new guidelines like ‘Building for Life 12′ means that for the first time in decades we are taking significant steps to avoid blighting lives at the planning stage with the expense and wasted hours of traffic updates and platform announcements – with which the inhabitants of our existing garden cities are only too familiar.

First published by Platform 10 on February 19th, 2014