Five years ago I asked whether people were starting work earlier. Based on my own observations and anecdotes from others, it seemed to me that roads and railways were packed with commuters at times of the morning when they used to be almost deserted.
Thanks to an article in the Economist, retweeted in the context of yesterday’s Tube strike, I now have some data to back up my hunch. Since 2001, the number of people using the Underground has increased and so has the length of the rush hour. It’s more like a rush three hours now. As passenger numbers have increased at peak times, the number of people leaving early or delaying their journeys has also risen. In just over ten years, the volumes have shifted at each end by about half to three-quarters of an hour, so 6.15am now looks like 6.45am used to.
This example from the article reflects many people’s experience:
When Catherine Mulligan, a part-time economist at a non-profit group, commutes from her home in south-west London to her office in Clerkenwell, in the centre, she chooses her departure time carefully. Either she gets on the London Underground early, at around five o’clock in the morning, or she works at home and travels in when the rush hour is over. Such early and late starts may seem an annoyance, but neither is as bad as the alternative. “I avoid the peak hour because it’s hell,” she says.
The worse the Tube gets at peak times, the more people travel earlier or later so the rush hour gets wider. I suspect the data would look very similar on overground trains and buses and that something similar is happening in other major cities. TUC research last year showed that, since 2008, commuting times had increased almost everywhere.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Technology, we were told, would turn us all into e-commuters, working from home and connecting by video links. Few people would trudge into work every day. The term e-commuter sounds vaguely old-fashioned now and there is certainly not much evidence of people abandoning the traditional office. The home-working revolution, which caused a flurry of excitement a while back, turned out to be just another aspect of the rise in self-employment. Among employees, the percentage working from home has risen only slightly over the last fifteen years.
Transport for London (TFL) is planning for a 30 percent increase in population but a 60 percent increase in Tube travel by 2050, which suggests that they are not anticipating the death of commuting during the next three decades.
It’s expensive and time-consuming to travel into city centre workplaces but still we do it. It’s not just because employers don’t trust people to work from home. Most of us still like to go into a workplace at least for part of the week. There is something about working with people face-to-face that can’t be replicated by technology.
I keep hearing that work is a thing you do, not a place you go but most people in Britain will be heading off to work by train, bus or car today. This will probably be so for years to come. Decades from now, a lot of people will still be going to work. And people will still be getting up at 5am to beat the rush hour.