Commuting: The life sentence?

The one aspect of the daily grind that is guaranteed to provoke an opinion is the commute to work. Congested roads, overcrowded trains, packed buses and sweaty tubes – it’s been said that if travel broadens the mind, commuting shrinks it back.

According to a recent report by the Rail Passengers Council, we are in ‘despair’, as one in four of London’s commuter trains fails to arrive on time. Trade unions criticise bosses for stressing out their employees by expecting them to commute too much. Some go further, linking what might otherwise be regarded as a relatively innocuous activity with high blood pressure, heart disease and blood clots in the leg.

Few would contest that the UK’s transport infrastructure is in a sorry state. But if the commuting experience is really so bad, why do so many of us continue to do it? This was the topic of discussion at the recent debate organised by the London-based Transport Research Group. (1)

David Young, project coordinator at Sustrans South-East, was keen to trumpet the virtues of cycling in the fight against obesity. This proved topical given the publication, the following week, of the House of Commons Health Committee report on the issue, with strategies to reduce people’s reliance on transport featuring prominently in its recommendations.

Continuing the theme of millennial moral panics, Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, highlighted the issue of congestion. If we all worked from home, she suggested, there would be 20 per cent less traffic on the roads. However, co-panellist Timandra Harkness longed ‘for the two separate worlds’ of home and work that she has otherwise denied herself as a freelance journalist. As Gavron acknowledged, for many of us the daily commute is the price we are willing to pay for the dynamism of city life.

The ideal of mass mobility and the more familiar reality of congested commuting are arguably the essence of bustling cities. A member of the audience argued that we might even welcome the opportunity for quiet reflection that stalling commuter routes offer up, if admittedly by default. The RAC Foundation has discovered, to its evident horror, that even if our journeys were to double in duration ‘we’d just shrug and leave more time’ (2). So why has the act of getting to work become such a major cause for concern now, despite our reluctance to avoid commuting in practice?

Commuting today is an experience we share in common, not restricted to the ‘pinstripe suits’ of old. In his quirky The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes how we take our troubled selves with us when we travel. This, I think, can only be intensified in the routine journeying of the jaded commuter.  As well as ourselves though, we carry around with us the broader anxieties and frustrations of our times.

So it is striking how the discussion of the (im-) mobile metropolis tends to focus on the despairing angst-ridden commuter as much as infrastructural failure. The debate about commuting tends to become a metaphor for concerns that our working lives lack definition; and the sense that the commuter routes are falling apart as well only reinforces this sense of disengagement and confusion.

Consequently, as Austin Williams, chairing the debate, said, ‘transport is rarely discussed in its own terms’. For Tony Grayling, associate director (Sustainability) at the Institute for Public Policy Research, it is no longer about ‘trains, planes and automobiles’. Far from being a practical issue that needs addressing, transport has become an area through which a whole range of moral and political prejudices are aired. 

The policy response, in this context, makes more sense. Grayling went on to explain how he was interested in minimising the environmental and social costs of travel, and what he described as the undermining of ‘communities of place’. The deputy mayor was unapologetically intent on ‘reducing the need to travel’ altogether in the name of creating her ‘liveable city’. It seems that what might once have been regarded as a parochial, even eccentric contribution to the policy discussion has come to dominate both the transport agenda and the curiously pedestrian thinking on all things urban.

Indeed such tangential considerations as those posed by Grayling, Gavron and Young alike, are celebrated for their very joined-up-ness. Instead of dreaming up better ways of getting us from A to B, politicians and policy makers alike are increasingly concerned with engineering their particular take on society. Addressing everything from the environment, public health, and social inequality, to the work-life balance, community-building and civic engagement – it’s hardly surprising we’ve come to a stand-still.

(1) Commuting: the life sentence?

(2) UK Commute ‘longest in Europe’, BBC News, 22 July, 2003

‘Braver people’ needed to beat fear of crime

People “should be told to be braver” if the widespread and socially-damaging fear of crime and strangers is to be beaten, Miranda Sawyer, author of a book that investigated local neighbourhoods in Coventry, told a day-long conference on Future Vision: Future Cities at the London School of Economics.

“Cities are a bit rough”, she admitted, but people were capable of taking control of their lives if they were given the opportunity to do so. Ms Sawyer told a session on local solutions that she hung around parks as a child and “worked things out” with her peers. Today’s youngsters, she said, needed a similarly neutral space.

Victoria Nash, formerly senior researcher at the Institute of Public Policy Research and author of Making Sense of Communities, described the role of local authorities as that of re-establishing trust and a sense of civic pride through, for example, anti-litter campaigns. Nash subscribed to the view that sink estates were characterised by “network poverty”, and argued that if residents – and particularly children – were able to mix with a cross-section of positive people and role-models they would find a way out of their circumstances.

The debate ended with a split between the proponents of “social mix” (the goal of policy-makers increasingly interested in re-forging the social ties that define the urban experience) and “social mobility” (a hands-off approach that regards the state as facilitator of the public good). Are communities ripe for engineering? Or is the increasing fragility of informal ties already being undermined by such interventions? As a contributor from the floor argued, the narrowing of the public sphere and the increasingly draconian clampdowns on “anti-social behaviour” can only encourage the intrusive parochialism of the village and suburb from which cities offer an escape.

The Sewer King

review of ‘The Sewer King’ episode in BBC documentary series

London in 1848 was the ‘biggest, richest, most densely populated’ city on Earth. Its popoulation doubled in half a century leaving a ‘torrent in human excrement’. An outbreak of cholera was the worst seen since the Great Plague, not to mention dysentery and typhoid. There were riots in the East End as corpses overwhelmeed graveyards. By the winter of 1849, 14,000 had died. By 1853 it had returned.

The Lancet, mouthpiece of medical science, confessed to be ‘at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture’ as to the cause. For Edwin Chadwick of the Poor Law Commission, ‘all smell is disease’. Epidemiologist, John Snow, was the first to undermine the ‘miasma’ thesis, which dominated professional opinion. He found that, rahter than being a consequence of ‘bad air’, the disease was water-borne.

In 1856, as Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette (subject of this documentary, and distant relative of the director Ed Bazalgette) embarked on an ambitious project to rebuild the sewer system, at the time to do no more than disperse rainwater. His plan would mean a complex network of tunnels, with water being carried out into the Thames estuary and out to sea, employing the most powerful pumps ever – courtesy of Stevenson – to carry it into huge reservoirs.

For Bazalgette, ‘without sanitation we are little more than beasts’. But it wasn’t until 1848, against massive opposition from both his peers and the press that a Bill was passed in Parliament. This resulted in a ‘dramatic improvement in health across the metropolis’. Ironically for Bazalgette, like everybody else save Snow, water purification was secondary to eradicating the stench of sewage.

There are strking parallels between this characteristically Victorian feat of engineering and the popular reaction to it, and contemporary Britain. The sheer grandeur resulting in something we take for granted today dwarfs projects dismissed as unattainable today. The descent into rumour and prejudice by the elite said a lot about their fear of and repulsion with the masses. Indeed this seemed to drive the project more than anything. Today’s eco-fears, and our truly poisonous cynicism, only seem to put a brake on urban development.

The future of mobility

Three debates organised by the Transport Research Group at the Bloomberg Auditorium, London

In this series of three debates we were asked to consider – are more cars a problem, do we need more infrastructure, and does mobility matter anyway? As Austin Williams, director of the Transport Research Group, noted in his address, transport policy has become a popular concern, and lost its former ‘anorak’ association. A variety of speakers were involved over the three debates, and the introduction of congestion charging as the first event kicked off ensured a lively discussion.

Jonathan Meades, writer and broadcaster, applauded what he called ‘the five quid revolution’. He was scathing of the ‘tailback people …[who were] due a traffic laxative’ for assuming an ‘inalienable right to roam in metal boxes’. Christian Wolmar, journalist and author of Down the Tubes and Broken Rails, thought congestion charging ‘the most exciting moment in transport policy in the last 20 years’. (Although, I’d add that restricting the mobility of pigeons in Trafalgar Square must come a close second.) According to Francis Terry of the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College, Ken Livingstone ‘has more guts than the entire cabinet put together’ in introducing the charge in London.

Apparently we had it coming and the Mayor of London has done us a favour by introducing a tax on mobility. I have reservations about the ‘revolutionary’ character of the charge, but Terry was right to note the loss of nerve in government. Thankfully, others were less willing to go along with Ken’s plans for them. A contributor from the floor was outraged that the Mayor of London should ‘tax someone’s audacity to want to get from A to B in the way they so choose’.

Tony Gilland, Science and Society Director at the Institute of Ideas, echoed this sentiment. He asked, ‘What is city life about anyway?’ Surely a thriving city implies a degree of congestion. Gilland felt we were being distracted by ‘a rather moralistic trick’, taking the blame, when the problem is an absence of political vision. He argued that the discussion about congestion revealed a new moral orthodoxy in keeping with a diminished view of the city.

The ‘congestion question’ brought out speakers’ desire to engineer people’s lives rather than the transport infrastructure. Meades referred to the foot-and-mouth debacle almost approvingly as evidence that it’s possible to engineer immobility. A contributor from the floor noted how people were being presented as obstacles to, rather than the beneficiaries of, a better transport system. If only it were true, as Wolmar worried, that politicians are ‘obsessed with the big big infrastructure projects’. Post-Millennium Dome, it is as if ministers have felt exposed by their evident lack of vision. They are more likely to run from such projects, or get bogged down in risk assessments, for fear of the consequences.

James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, seemed a lone voice in favour of thinking big. He argued for a ‘resolute defence of forecasting, technology push and infrastructure development’. Woudhuysen was dismissive of the vogue for ‘serving the user’ especially when opposed to the now much derided model of ‘predict and provide’.

Dr Rana Roy, Consulting Economist to the European Conference of Ministers of Transport, wanted ‘more, better, bigger, faster infrastructure’. However, Woudhuysen warned that talk of infrastructure in the current climate could be misleading. In IT, for example, ‘grid computing’ (that is, connecting computers to maximise processing power) was about ‘making old things work a bit better’. The analogy with London Underground, the world’s oldest tube, was irresistible.

He needn’t have worried. Speakers such as Professor John Adams, author of OECD report The Social Implications of Hypermobility, were against the idea of better mobility anyway. Adams presented us with a dystopian parody of our fearful age – populated by fattening, stranger-averse kids cocooned from the ever present ‘metal in motion’. He urged us to ‘cherish the local’ and invited us to worry about the ‘positively frightening’ numbers of people moving around, and our inability to accommodate them. Malthus lives on, it seems.

Terence Bendixson, President of Living Streets/Pedestrians’ Association, gave a rather romantic account of the ‘older modes’ of mobility. He insisted that walking and cycling aren’t incompatible with travelling long distances – they just take longer! He also revealed that the invention of the bicycle in the 19th century helped reduce in-breeding. Fascinating, but the contemporary relevance escaped me. Bendixson went on to argue against ‘power and acceleration’, expressed a preference for the ‘boxy’ over the streamlined car, and called for the abolition of bull-bars! His was a case against the masculine in favour of the feminine, for a car that works ‘with’ rather than ‘against’ the city.

What one contributor from the floor described as the ‘dominant social pessimism’ seemed to infect much of the discussion. If these debates are anything to go by the future for mobility is indeed gloomy. Peter Smith, Customer Relations Manager at STA Travel, asked why we are seeking to contain people’s aspirations when ‘we’re only scratching the surface’.

Perhaps more worrying is the future of freedom. Many speakers made clear their hostility to the individual and his or her right to enjoy the benefits of a modern society. The anti-car sentiment is little more than an expression of this. The potential for greater mobility, and the political ambition to build the necessary infrastructure, require a truly ‘revolutionary’ shift in outlook. And I don’t mean more congestion charging!