The fattening of the rush hour

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.

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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.

Home working 2014

Source: ONS

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.

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13 Responses to The fattening of the rush hour

  1. Reblogged this on 101 Half Connected Things and commented:
    This is genuinely fascinating. The future of work is more crowded tube lines.

  2. Reblogged this on T Recs and commented:
    Really interesting post and mirrors some of my recent experiences.

    For many, work is still a place you go, not just a thing you do…

  3. Chris Dillow says:

    “Most of us still like to go into a workplace at least for part of the week”.
    Speak for yourself. I never go into the office, and I’ve never been happier.
    Isn’t this a case of path dependency? You commute because that’s what you’ve always done. I mean, if we had always worked from home and someone suggested spending two hours a day and hundreds of pounds a year to stand on a sweaty tube train, we’d think they were barking mad. Which they would be.

    • Luke says:

      Work places can also provide a useful environment for engaging with other people though. Obviously you are there to work mainly, but the brief moments when you go to get a cup of tea with colleagues or have a quick chat in between tasks is quite important and I think I’d find working from home quite an isolating experience.

      We’re also assuming that the form of transport people take to commute will forever remain the same. I agree sitting on a sweaty tube 2 hours a day is not much fun, but I’d be interested to see how the proportion of people cycling versus other forms of transport has changed over the same period.

  4. srjc3 says:

    A workplace can provide friends, lovers, a structure and a path in life that few other institutions can – especially with the decline of organised religion. I guess it has a lot to do with personality – some prefer they’re own company, others don’t. The best you can hope for is both alternatives are available.

  5. Jon says:

    It’s more mixed, I think. Not many people have become homeworkers, but a lot more people work at home some of the time or on an ad hoc basis. But the office is a powerful idea: think about all the companies that reported a decline in working from home when the recession hit, as workers wanted to be visible in the office all of a sudden. I suspect more people would work remotely if they could be certain of the support of their manager. But managing home workers isn’t taught properly (if at all) and suspicions around home working remain.

  6. Dave Timoney says:

    In the 18th century, workers did not happily swap the putting out system (which meant they worked at home) for working in factories. The impetus was the forced concentration of labour, not sociability. Nor did most clerical workers consider offices fun places to be. This didn’t change much over the next two centuries.

    The mistake of the early teleworking boosters was to imagine that IT would reverse this process, allowing labour to be dispersed. In the event, office workers proved resistant to the logic, accepting occasional ‘at-home’ days but insistent that they required quality face-time as well. It is no coincidence that the advance in remote working technology has been mirrored by a cultural valorisation of team-working and performative collaboration.

    There has also been a shift towards treating the workplace as a perk and status object in its own right, hence the fashion for offices that look more like clubs and the infantilising emphasis on play. What this points to is massive under-employment in offices (heavily masked by the productivity gains of IT) and the growth of rent-seeking among the middle classes. Work from home too long and you risk being excluded from office politics and thus “found out”.

    Also, bear in mind that the growth of early/late travel on the Tube has been exacerbated in recent years by two other factors: the increasing number of personal services roles (servants, cleaners etc) required by Central London’s rich; and the increased decanting of working class Londoners, who work in town, from homes in the centre to the suburbs – i.e. forced to become commuters.

    • Florence says:

      My personal experience of tele-working was as a work-place adjustment for disability as peak-time travel on the tube was hellish (even more so than when able bodied). I could work in the morning until after rush hour, and if attendance was needed earlier, a taxi was provided. The costs were covered by the Access to Work schemes that are being cut back by under the last budget and will make staying in work more difficult for the disabled, as the employer didn’t have to pay.

      Home-working was trialled at my work pace for all, but is was manily as a response to the need for more staff in the same office space, and the use of head office hot-desks was universally hated. The managers though hated home-working (it was an IT dept BTW) because the higher up ones loved to be able to see their minions, their empires, and a room of silent empty desks hurt egos. Despite productivity rising there was always the luddite management arguing that people were not “really” working, when the MIS system provided did indeed show people were working longer (for no extra money) rather than less. It’s a cultural thing, like presenteeism, and perhaps this generation who have grown up with mobile technology when they reach middle age and middle management may be able to make the cultural leap.

  7. metatone says:

    We’re really bad at managing knowledge work.
    More work than ever is knowledge work.
    You sacrifice (as a worker) your place in office politics in such an environment at quite some level of risk. C. Dillow is in a happy position to be (for his industry) a star. He gets to choose. Few others do.

  8. ballantine70 says:

    I’ve also recently argued that much technology that is there to enable remote working provides the chaff and has stripped out much of the wheat of office work… Lhttp://mobile.cio.co.uk/blogs/digital-devolution/emeetings-bloody-emeetings-3619343/

  9. Good one. The wife and I both travel into central London on the Tube – she sets off really early (about 7.30) in order to get a seat before it gets really crowded and I set off really late (8.50) so that the worst is over and I can get a seat.

  10. Danny A says:

    That data as displayed in the plot needs to be normalized to overall numbers. To accurately measure the “block size” i.e. rush hour length, you want to take a vertical profile for each year and derive a width from a Gaussian fit.

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