A return to commuting

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Parallel linesIt’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. A long while.

Not for lack of things I have wanted to share. Perhaps because I had only observations and not much in the way of conclusions; that hasn’t changed. However, I have been missing sharing them at all: taking the time to put into words thoughts and feelings that buzz like errant flies against a window.

So for my return commuter theology I chose this picture: something a friend shared on Facebook last year, which feels analogous to how fellow commuters can interact – or not – over a lifetime of commuting. Whether in a car or in a train carriage, many of us do exist in parallel, never touching. Or we might meet briefly, perhaps to give back a scarf left on a seat or share a wry smile over the stranger singing away to a tinny tune. I like the rare occasions though, when parallel lines do meet or when divergent lines have cause to meet again.

Just a thought.

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Commuting at Christmas

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I’m tucked up at home now. Warm and comfortable in the knowledge that the next four days are my own to enjoy. Because it’s Christmas! Cards, presents, excessive food and drink, tinsel, crackers, the Queen’s speech and an afternoon nap. And for some people another day at work.

I won’t dwell too much on this, because Andy Walton’s written something far better.

But what is it like commuting on Christmas Day? Is it busier than you might imagine? Do commuters share knowing glances that say ‘we’re in this together’? On a day that the majority of the Western world is taking as holiday, does it feel like a sacrifice or just another day?

Can we share more than space?

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Tomorrow morning commuters across the country will read the news about Gary Speed.

They probably already know some of the story, but the established press, the disposable freebies, the iPad-enabled newsstands and reading over a neighbour’s shoulder will bring us all a little closer to the full tragedy of his death.

And yet only the tiny minority might express any reaction or emotion to it for the length of their commute. Sure, we’ll start talking once we’ve arrived in the office. It may not amount to the sincerity of mourning, but at least in the workplace there’s a semblance of sharing. In a commuter carriage we share silence.

In the UK depression affects 1 in 5 older people and British men are three times as likely to commit suicide as British women. Gary Speed’s death, the nature of it – suicide by a man respected in his field at the top of his profession – has caused shockwaves and, if these statistics are to be believed, has no doubt hit a very personal nerve among many people across the country.

I find it disconcerting that strangers will come together on occasions to mourn, to protest, to celebrate, but strangers brought together by this particular circumstance do not. The commute can be a lonely place, made lonelier still by the constraints of etiquette. Or is this just my experience?

We’re all waiting for something

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I realise it’s a little late to be talking about the Rapture. Or rather the lack of rapture. But the beauty of the whole experience is it seems we still have all the time in the world to discuss it. At least until the next prophecy…

Personally I don’t give credence to the interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, from whence this rapture stuff has arisen. In particular I don’t much like the idea that ‘We’ will be caught up, leaving our sad and broken unbelievers to lament God’s passing and look after our pets in perpetuity. It’s typical of the prosperity gospel, them/us rhetoric that makes Christianity occasionally so loathsome.

However the idea that any group of people are awaiting for something in the belief that it *will* come is pretty natural. Sure, the rapture has a religious glow about it, but in many ways how different is it from the shared belief among the crowd of people standing on platform 10 that the 8.37 to Waterloo will, eventually, arrive? And more importantly, whisk them off to the place they want nay need, to be? And how foolish must we look when it doesn’t arrive when expected and our supposedly secular hopes are briefly dashed?

Facing up to the costs of commuting

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Watching for a chance to get him, they sent spies who posed as honest inquirers, hoping to trick him into saying something that would get him in trouble with the law. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you’re honest and straightforward when you teach, that you don’t pander to anyone but teach the way of God accurately. Tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
He knew they were laying for him and said, “Show me a coin. Now, this engraving, who does it look like and what does it say?”
“Caesar,” they said.
Jesus said, “Then give Caesar what is his and give God what is his.”
Try as they might, they couldn’t trap him into saying anything incriminating. His answer caught them off guard and left them speechless.
Luke 20:22-26

The cost of commuting has soared to a new high. Or is it low? Across the country train fares are being hiked, along with VAT rates and petrol costs. A cheeky pint is looking more insolent in the cold light of 20%.

Salaries at my workplace were frozen last year, although any increase would be miniscule in comparison to this new cost of living, and my heart goes out to anyone who has been made redundant. London weighting has not changed in 15 years and yet anyone who has to travel to, from and within the city, not to mention drink, eat and, it feels, breathe pay more than in any other part of the country.

Our disposable income is being siphoned away through taxes and nigh-on monopolies that exploit free market mentality. The savings we make by living outside of the city are lost along with the hours spent making the journey.

Jesus in the famous passage above says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” – a statement that has been analysed left, right and sideways. Theologians and philosophers have suggested variously that he was being evasive, divisive, submissive and, it seems, ultimately quite effective, since it can therefore mean what you want it to mean.

How do Jesus’ words relate to facing up to the cost of commuting? They invite the question: how much you are willing to give the State? There is a greater cost to commuting than just financial; there is your free time, your family time, your personal space, and they are definitely not Caesar’s to own.

If you interpret Jesus’ words as divisive then there is an even bigger question to answer, because with paying more tax across the board, you render Caesar that much more. Marx-reading Mennonites don their suit and shame for the 7.15 to King’s Cross to make their 9am lecture on civil disobedience.

We have created a society so big that it expects its citizens to live and work many miles apart and yet David Cameron’s ideal of a “Big Society” is conversely about identifying the smaller communities and making them more self-reliant through their members. Perhaps Cameron himself hasn’t faced up to the wider costs of commuting.

Aside from the unpragmatic implications of the Big Society, and its reliance on the disposable non-working hours that many people don’t have, it may perhaps provide escape: jobs and employment move out of the battery farms and sardine tins of cityscapes and into local offices and high streets. The commute is no more (nothing is certain but death and taxes).

Idealistic perhaps, but as long we choose to pay the fares and be part of the commute we render unto Caesar that which is his, and more: we also render him our dreams.

Space to breathe

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What is it about commuting that we allow ourselves to occupy space – or lack thereof – that we would normally balk at?

A friend commented the other day that riding the bus rather than the tube, because of yet another strike, felt no more safe since she was wedged against the window with all manner of humanity between her and the exit.

Why do we subject ourselves to very very close proximity to strangers; enough sometimes to count hairs in nostrils and measure – with handy calipers – pore size and likelihood of diabetes?

When people travel in the bible there is mention of custom and mores, of social interaction, but these are journeys of days, weeks and months duration, not the hour it takes to traverse the Thames.

At what point did we decide that allowing ourselves no space to breathe was a constant and not a variable?

Walk the (Victoria) Line

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For the last four weeks I have been walking into work – a pleasant 7-10 minute stroll of a morning.

My God – what a lucky woman I am, you might think. But amazingly there were things that I missed. Less of a walk in the park and more a pilgrim’s progress.

As an intrepid commuter and incorrigible thinker, I have realised that there are some problems with walking into work…

Cons

  1. Proximity of the workplace. There is always the lingering shadow of your work building close enough to whisper, “Where are you, my precious?”
    This is the main problem for people who work from home, as they are never far from the office. While it would seem madness for someone to get on a train and take the 2hr round trip to work on Sunday evening, people whose office is in the attic/spare room will quietly use the long dark teatime of the soul to “just finish that project”.
  2. No time to read. Fortunately I have discovered the sublime A History of the World in 100 Objects and am wending my way through each one like a polymath through a dinner party conversation, but one podcast doesn’t quite cover the journey, and so it feels as if I’m always in the middle of something, reminding myself where I was. I miss reading. This is one of the reasons I don’t cycle to work either (along with my dangerous inability to cycle safely).
  3. Footwear. I have for a week now brought my heels along in my bag only to forget to put them on once at work. This may not apply to men.

Ok, so it’s not a huge list. But it surprises me at all that I have one. And so to the pros:

Pros

  1. Far far cheaper daily travel costs. Although if you’re used to a monthly/annual travelcard, it’s amazing how much you find yourself spending on ad hoc travel at weekends and evenings.
  2. Longer in bed. Nuff said.
  3. Daily exercise. It may not be much, but it’s more than none at all.
  4. Fresh air and wide open spaces, rather than a cramped train/bus/tube or lonely car. That is, unless you’re walking down a busy London main road. The bit across the bridge makes up for it though.
  5. The freedom.

Walking into work is as much a daily commute as any other form of transport – there are the same people you see and pass by of a morning, there is the fixed timescale, there may even be the same old route each day, but unlike so many other commutes it can be about the journey rather than the destination. Rather than be herded into a moveable carriage, you are yourself moving, feeling the ebb and flow of the wind, the people and the traffic around you.

As with cycling, it feels as if you take your destiny into your own hands each morning, heralding the start of the day with action and with choice, rather than chipping away at your personal freedom bit by bit with timetables and traffic jams, bus drivers and borrowed time.

I am about to move into a new place and have worked out that it would probably take me about an hour to walk in. Compared to my 10 minute stroll right now, I’m not sure I could hack the whole hour, but I could perhaps do half and bus the rest? The list of cons might increase to include: takes too long, harder in bad weather, risk of mugging… it gets a little pathetic after a while, especially when the long term benefits would include my health and a few grammes of Carbon saved.

The benefits across a wider scale could be wonderful, but how conceivable is it really that more people might walk to work, when most live so far away? I find myself coming to the same old conclusion: that a sustainable and pleasant society is one with fewer geographical dependencies; in a world where people commute by plane, it seems backward to suggest the journey should not be made. It is, after all, not a journey but a means to an end – one that costs so much more in resources, impact and freedom than it is worth.

In my case, is an hour too long? Are the queues for the bus and the platform really worth the 20 minutes saved at the other end? Or am I so used to giving up so many other personal freedoms on a day to day basis that the freedom of walking to work is not worth that much?