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We should end winter commuting misery

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Home working, flexible hours and better transport infrastructure could all help to ease our commuting woes.

As autumn shades into winter and the nights become nippy, the thought of going to work becomes a real drag. Whether you are stuck in a traffic jam, freezing at the bus stop or crammed into a train or tube, this is the time of year when commuting becomes a thoroughly boring chore. Many of us will be leaving home in darkness and returning from work in the dark. Things are worse still when we have to battle rain, snow or perhaps even floods like those drenching parts of South Yorkshire. Why on earth do we still have to suffer this winter commuting misery?

Commuting is taking up more of our time

And it’s getting worse. Commuting times are steadily creeping up year on year. New TUC research shows that the average employee now takes nearly an hour a day (58.8 minutes) just getting to work and back. This has increased by 5.4 minutes since 2008. This adds up to an extra 20 hours each year, so it’s no wonder we’re getting fed up with the drudgery of commuting.

Men tend to have longer commutes, averaging 64.6 minutes, but women are gradually catching up, with an increase of 5.6 minutes in the last decade taking their average commute to 53.0 minutes a day.

Every nation and region of the UK has seen average commuting times rise in the past decade. Employees in Wales and South East England have both suffered the biggest increases, travelling an extra 31 hours a year compared to a decade ago. Londoners have seen a smaller increase (+16 hours a year), but lead the long commute league table, travelling for an average of 79.2 minutes a day.

Longer commutes are a real strain for working people. They are also bad for the environment, so clearly the country needs to change its ways. With more than 25 million employees trying to get to work each day, our transport system is badly overstretched. Congestion and longer journeys to work increase carbon emissions.

One way to reduce this impact is simply to take up smarter commuting, whether by home working, which cuts out the expensive and time-consuming chore of getting to work, or by working flexitime to avoid the rush hour.

What should employers do?

Sadly, too many employers still don’t offer flexible and home working opportunities. There is too much fear of change and not enough willingness to trust staff to work off site.

This defies all the evidence, which shows that homeworkers value their status, and generally have high productivity, as they are well-motivated and less likely to be distracted.

There is a lot of unmet demand for flexible working. Canny employers ought to be looking at the personnel and productivity benefits of meeting this demand. The jobs market is tight, and flexibility helps tempt more people to work and stops employers losing staff to their more flexible rivals.

Well-managed flexitime schemes can also help employers to extend the coverage of their service, as there will always be some staff who want to start earlier or finish later than the fixed hours model allows.

Most of us do not work on manufacturing assembly lines these days, so there is no longer any reason for us all to be rushing to arrive at work at the same time, as though we were still in Victorian times.

The pace of technological change is accelerating, but management practices often change at a snail’s pace. We need to adopt smarter working practices that better match the needs of working people and the needs of employers. That means more flexibility and smarter commuting.

What should government do?

It’s easy to see how Britain could do better. Here are some challenges for the next government:

  • Deliver an industrial strategy that ensures there are great jobs and opportunities everywhere. We need an economy that works for everyone, in every job, in every part of the country.
  • Invest in transport infrastructure to deliver a modern, efficient network.
  • Deliver better connectivity. Only one in five parliamentary consistencies have full 4G coverage according to Which?, the consumer organisation.
  • Bring trains and bus services back into public ownership. Journeys are too slow and tickets are too expensive for most people.
  • Make the cost of housing more affordable. Costs have risen sharply in the past 10 years, making it harder for people to live close to where they work.
  • And, of course, promote smarter working and smarter commuting. Strengthening the right to request flexible working would be a good start.

It should be really easy to deliver smarter commuting as everybody stands to gain. This must be one of our New Year’s resolutions!