Friday, March 31, 2006

My day as a commuter

It is so true that you don't really appreciate what you have, until you lose it. As a Finn, I took clean water and air, having a lot of space around me, nature, forests and lakes at my doorsteps for granted. In England I have realised that things are different: the few square feet of land that you need for parking your car is more valuable than the car itself. Especially if the lot happens to be within a mile of your house.

Location, location, location. The three most important features of your apartment or house. Or property, as the proper word is. I always thought there was property of all kinds, like intellectual property, or that your pair of skis and collection of Peruvian mouth-organs would qualify as property. Well, they might, but what counts is your proverbial castle. There are two kinds of programmes on TV nowadays; celebrity/not-yet-but-soon-to-be celebrity reality shows, and property/renovation/home & garden shows. Oh, and occasional re-runs of Miss Marple and football.

The reason why people in these English, i.e. hideously small, mildewy, wall-to-wall carpeted and inconvenient houses are so obsessed with the properties of their properties, is that they are so expensive, and that they often are situated a few counties away from where people go to work. Which is London.

Cambridge is close enough to London to be inside its commuting circle. That would at first sound ridiculous for two reasons. First, to me, having to sit (or actually, stand) for an hour in a train to get to spend another hour in the tube to get to work, and then reversing the process in the end of the day is too much. Also, the property prices in Cambridge are hideously high as well, so you wouldn't even save much. Not enough to offset the human costs of the commuting, anyway.

I tried this "lifestyle" for one day this week. When I go to London, I usually avoid peak hours in the trains, not only because you get the tickets half price, but also because you get a seat. This time, however, I was going to London in business, had to spend the whole day, and so needed to take the 7.15 commuter express from Cambridge and the 18.15 zombie-transport back.

You think you know how to travel in trains and tubes, but one trip in the early train with these people is enough to show you what a total amateur you are. These people are professional commuters. The crowd on the platform waiting for train, is not uniformally distributed across the length of the platform. It's in about 8 clusters and one row behind them. There will be 8 cars in the train. The train doors will stop at the centres of the clusters. The people who form the row are those who came too late to make it to a good spot in the cluster, and are waiting for their chance to dash to the doors in case the driver makes a mistake and goes a bit too far and parks the doors between clusters.

There are no happy faces. No one is really looking forward to the trip, there's no sense of excitement, no glow in the cheeks that would reveal inner musings of the prospects of the travels ahead. Any glow is more likely to be a result of a hang-over or overdose of caffeine that they have injected themselves with to battle chronic sleep-deprivation. These people are not going to see their loved ones, or new exciting places. They are going to work, and had to wake up too early. In fact, they ARE at work already. Meeting agendas and business correspondence are being drafted in the minds already, telephone calls are made (clearly to other commuters or business partners in other time zones, since it's about 7AM...). Then the train arrives, and the platformfull of suited grey mass will be sucked into the train that's already half-full of people who live even further away. They might have to get up earlier, but they will be guaranteed a seat in the train. At Cambridge (and there are four other stops between Cambridge and London King's Cross) the train will reach its full capacity and some people will have to sit on the floor or stand.

80% of those who get a seat will take a memo or a laptop or both from their briefcases and start working. To get a competitive edge or just to fight off boredom? Not everyone is wearing a suit. There's also a handful of people who don't trust public transport in London and are equipped with folding bicycles and gore-tex jackets and lycra pants with lots of reflectors everywhere, and are going to hop on their bikes on the station and cycle wherever it is they are going. Assumedly their suits will be there waiting for them.

There's a sense of belonging that you get in here. It's not really solidarity, since you can feel that these people are already mentally preparing for the competitive environment they will face in City, but everyone feels like they are in the same boat. The professionalism of commuting is enshrined in the unspoken rules and codes of conduct. If you see a free seat, you grab it. It's yours even though an older lady would walk past. Since everyone is fit enough to work, they are also fit enough to stand. It's their own fault if they are too slow to board a train. Better luck next time. No loud conversations, even in mobiles. People are working, this is an extension of the office, just without the water coolers and stationery cupboards. You shouldn't pay too much attention to other people's papers or work. You wouldn't want someone to peer over your shoulder to read your memo's, would you? No initiating unnecessary discussion. It is alright to talk with people who are travelling with you, but not initiate stupid chats with strangers about weather or the nice laptop they have. They have the laptop because they are working, even if they would be playing solitaire. There's mental work or mind-cleaning going on and it should not be disturbed.

Efficiency is the word. At King's Cross, people who queue for their coffee fixes all know what they are going to have when their turn to make the order comes. None of that touristy procrastination and thinking aloud, pondering whether to get a large or medium, should we get cream or not in the mocha. It's mostly double espressos and large americanas, all to go, all quick, all routine. You grab the free Metro paper, since it's routine. You read the stories without taking any of it in, since it's the established routine. Everyone is wearing their commuting class uniform, a grey suit or similar. Being there means having a job, a job that is well-paid enough for you to be coming to do it from anouther county. You are important enough for the company for them to pay you enough to make it worth your while to do this every day. Success!

But, it takes its toll. Even though the public transport in London is phenomenal and works astoundingly well, considering the number of people that use it every day, it is still a drag. At 6 pm, about 12-13 hours after getting up in the morning, the same lot will crowd another train and head back to Cambridgeshire for the night. This time many of them are going to their loved ones, but the weight of the day is still too much for them to crack a smile. Someone is still working, although it's predominantly evening rags and not working memos anymore. Competition for seats is different, since this time the train waits for commuters at the platform, but the same rules apply. "I've worked so hard today that I deserve this seat. If the granny needs a seat, one of the young students can give up theirs. I pay for their education anyway in my taxes."

What would you do with 3 extra hours in your day? How valuable would they be for you? How much would you be willing to pay to get the hum of train-travel out of your head? I don't know. I know I wouldn't want to commute like that, and I'm now much more appreciative of the fact that it takes me 5 minutes to cycle to work, in case I decide not to work at home. But, it might be that some day I will join the grey mass, know where the train doors will be, or even get myself some reflecting gore tex and lycra and a folding bike.

(Pic ©

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