Why would anyone commute to work? Almost throughout the twentieth century, that question would have seemed absurd. We commuted to work because work happened in factories and offices, and it was the daily duty of every employee to transport themselves from their homes to those places of work by 8 or 9am.
Today, factories need less human input, and most work in the service sector can be done anywhere. Flexible working is no longer some futurologist’s dream. As any forward-looking business leader knows, the challenge is no longer to bring talented people to work, but to bring work to talented people, who can do it where it suits them.
So why commute?
Commuting has always been uncomfortable – sometimes to the point of being demeaning – and it has always been inefficient in terms of the use of human time. Today it seems less defensible than ever for one main reason: it is clearly immensely damaging to the environment. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of Greenpeace to find offensive the sight of mile upon mile of cars with fuming exhausts, or to feel disgust as you see those dirty yellow clouds of smog hovering over cities like Los Angeles.
Yet in many of the world’s great cities, the daily commute is still a fact of life, with trains and highways still jammed with traffic during the morning and evening rush hours. In London, for instance, although the city centre has benefited from congestion charging, pedestrianisation and cycle lanes, it is hard to see any significant reduction in overall commuting. Perhaps this is not surprising given that the number of cars owned in the UK is still expected to rise by 44 per cent by 2041.
Nor is this an area where we can realistically look to the United States for a lead. Despite the worldwide growth in environmental awareness, the US remains a nation wedded to the automobile. A huge number of Americans use their car not only to go to work, but to commute to and from the gym – which is surely a self-indulgence too far, given that most people who care about their health normally profess to care about the planet as well.
Whatever happened to cycling?
Even allowing for the distances many Americans habitually travel, it is still remarkable that only 1 per cent of US journeys are made on a bicycle, compared with 10 per cent in Germany, 18 per cent in Denmark, and 27 per cent in the Netherlands. In Europe, people are increasingly getting out of their cars and trying to use bikes or trains. Just look at the number of cycle superhighways popping up throughout London.
Why commute at all?
The bigger question is whether people, whatever their chosen mode of transport, can break the habit of commuting, which no longer has any objective justification. In this respect there are one or two encouraging signs. In the Japanese city of Osaka, for instance, rail commuting began to decline in the 1990s, and that rate of decline is accelerating rapidly in the early years of this century. In other cities round the world, the growth of flexible working has at least spread the effect of commuting, so that instead of an hour of gridlock in the morning and something similar in the evening, the congestion is spread over a longer period.
The business case for cultural change
Let’s not kid ourselves. These are drops in the ocean. Pollution peaks may not be as high as they were, but there is precious little evidence of an overall reduction in commuter traffic. People all over the world are still trapped in a working and travelling routine that is no longer necessary. Cutting down on this futile, self-defeating activity is not just a matter of saving the planet. It makes sense for business too.
Only a few months ago we at Regus commissioned research among more than 11,000 businesses which showed that almost one in five respondents were considering quitting their jobs because of the length of their journeys to work. In India, this figure rose to one in four, and in China and South Africa, it rose to more than 30 per cent.
When the journey to work takes more than one hour, dissatisfaction rises further – with our survey showing that across the globe, 39 per cent of respondents faced with such long commutes had seriously considered quitting their jobs within the past two years. Interestingly, many of these respondents also said how much they enjoyed their jobs. What a ridiculous irony – to have so many people ready to leave the work they love because of a commute that in many cases could almost certainly be avoided.
Commuting should be on the way out. It’s bad for business, bad for the soul and bad for the planet. The buiness case is clear – now all that is needed is for more business leaders to show leadership, for governments to show foresight, and for people to show imagination. Then we will look back in a few decades at old films of commuter traffic and say to ourselves: “Weren’t they mad in those days!”