How to beat the commuter blues

Published date
13 Nov 2018
More employers should set about starting to solve the problem of ever-lengthening commute times

For many people commuting is the worst part of the day and policies that can make commuting shorter and more convenient would be a straightforward way to reduce minor but widespread suffering

Daniel Kahneman, Princeton Emeritus Professor and Nobel Laureate

As November bites, many of us will be commuting in the cold and the dark.

Most weather forecasters are predicting a very cold winter, which is certainly a chilling thought. You don’t have to live in Scotland, where the first snow fell back in 20 September, in order to suffer a case of the commuting blues.

Commute Smart Week, which is organised by Work Wise UK, is a great opportunity to talk about how we can make travelling to work take less time – or even eliminate the journey altogether

Commuting is taking too much of our time

New TUC research published today shows that commuting is taking up more and more of our time.

Ten years ago, the average commuter spent about 200 hours a year getting to work and back – the equivalent of five week’s work. Since then, the average commute has increased by 18 hours a year. 

Longer commutes often feel like wasted time and the experience can be frustrating and unpleasant. With more commuters travelling for longer, we all too often find ourselves sitting in a traffic jam or squeezed into packed public transport.

BME workers have the most time-consuming commutes

Our research shows that the average employee from a black or ethnic minority background spends an hour and 9 minutes each day commuting – or 12 minutes more than their white counterparts. BME workers are also more likely to live in urban areas, have lower average pay and are more likely to travel by bus, which is a relatively slow way of getting to work.

Cutting excessive commuting would be a real win-win

Commuting is also getting costlier. A litre of unleaded fuel is now 14p more than it was a year ago. This is an 11.5% rise – more than three times more than the increase in wages over the same period.

With the jobs market tightening and some employers finding it hard to fill vacancies, this is an excellent time to try to do something about the problems associated with ever-longer commutes.

Government, local authorities, employers, trade unions and campaigns like Work Wise UK can all play a part in taking the pressure off hard-pressed commuters.

Better transport and more affordable housing

Government should make transport a high priority for investment, strengthening our transport infrastructure and making sure that local bus services are properly funded.

Rising house prices and poor real wages growth have also made it hard for commuters to move closer to their jobs. Addressing these problems would also help ease the commuter blues.

Smarter working

Employers should use Commute Smart Week as an opportunity to look again at smarter working practices like flexible working and home working. With the jobs market tightening and some employers finding it harder to fill vacancies, this is an excellent time for employers to do something about the ever-longer commute.

Introducing flexi-time could help recruit people who find it hard to cope with the traditional nine to five. Flexi-time can also help to reduce transport snarl-ups, reduce emissions and make commuting more bearable.

Allowing home working could also draw in people who find it hard to travel, are geographically isolated or are simply in an area with higher unemployment. Home working cuts out the expensive and time-wasting commute altogether and helps ease transport congestion.

These ways of working do not suit everybody, but it would be easy to find enough willing volunteers. There is a big appetite for more home working and flexible working.

Employers should also think more about active workplace travel planning. This could mean encouraging car-sharing, walking, cycling and public transport, as well as building in flexible working and home working. This is something that trade unions often agree with big employers, to the benefit of staff and bosses alike.

Britain can do better

Rather than giving in to the commuting blues, more employers should set about starting to solve this problem. Those who do will be on their way to becoming employers of choice and will reap the rewards in terms of motivation and loyalty. And if smarter working was supported by more government investment in transport then we could go a long way towards getting rid of commuting gloom.