The unforgiving hour: what our longer commutes are really costing us

Regardless of where you live and how you travel, the length of a commute has increased over the past decade—at the expense of our time, health and happiness

September 17, 2019
The average UK commute now takes almost an hour. Photo: Pexel/Prospect comoisute
The average UK commute now takes almost an hour. Photo: Pexel/Prospect comoisute

Every morning I wake up, wash, dress, eat some breakfast, and then spend roughly fifty minutes dragging, jostling and shimmying my groggy body onto trains and through crowds and into work. I hate commuting, and I am not alone. Commuting is, pretty much everyone agrees, an absolute dirge.

It also takes up a big chunk of our lives. TUC analysis has shown that the total average UK commute takes up just less than an hour per day (58.4 minutes). There are regional differences here, with Londoners having the longest commute (81 minutes). There are also big differences depending on the mode of transport, with those on trains, buses and the underground having the longest commutes (all of which are over an hour).

Commutes are also getting longer. Regardless of how you commute, and in pretty much every region, the length of a commute has increased over the past decade. For those who travel by train, they’re also more expensive. In the past ten years, rail fares have risen twice as fast as wages. Getting the bus is also becoming increasingly difficult, with council cuts leading to drastic falls in publicly subsidised bus travel and thousands of routes being cut back or scrapped completely since 2010. 

Bus service cuts hit those in low income households the hardest, as they’re more likely than other income groups to travel by bus, and are already often priced out of rail travel. For those who are able to get the bus or train to work, neither offer the reliability they should. A fifth of those who don’t drive to work say that their commute is made more difficult due to unreliable public transport.

Driving to work instead doesn’t make things much easier. In the same survey, 40 per cent of those who travel to work by car said their commute was made difficult due to traffic congestion. That’s if it’s even an option; analysis by The Equality Trust shows that almost half of households in the lowest household income quintile, and 30 per cent in the second lowest, have no access to a car.

These long commutes impact on our health. Longer commute times are linked to increased stress and higher blood pressure and give us less time to do things that are good for us, like cooking healthier food, or getting more sleep. With most commuters choosing to drive to work, there’s also an environmental impact.

These expensive, health-damaging, long commutes are salt in the wound for many: an added pain on top of the fact that UK workers are already putting in the longest hours in the EU. So how do we curb the time we spend commuting?

Long and expensive commutes don’t just have one cause. They’re a result of a perfect storm of flaws within our economy: higher house and rent prices pushing people further away from where they work, a lack of investment in public transport, massive council cuts resulting in cancelled buses, a lack of truly flexible working, the concentration of well-paid jobs in certain areas, and an economy rife with regional and geographical disparities.

Solving long commutes involves tackling these issues. Some of this comes down to improving transport links between where people work and where people live. As the Centre for Cities points out, people tend to commute within cities and regions rather than between cities.

This doesn’t mean not investing in inter-city transport, but rather that we also need to invest in transport within cities, towns and regions. A quicker train from Birmingham to London is handy, but we also need better public transport between towns, and from rural areas into towns.

An important part of this is reversing cuts to public funding for bus services, as well as bringing rail services back into public ownership. Privatisation has clearly been a failure. A well-funded, affordable, and regulated public transport system will help to address the fact that, in every region except London, the vast majority of commuters still drive.

Employers also have a role to play. Flexibility is still not the norm in workplaces, with over half of the UK workforce (58 per cent) having no access to flexi-time. Working from home may have increased over the past decade, but way too many employers still rely on managing by attendance, even though there’s clear demand from working people for more flexibility.

Giving staff more control over their hours and working patterns, including genuine flexibility and working from home where possible, will help us to move away from everyone commuting at the same time and therefore ease the burden on roads and public transport systems.

On a wider scale, the government needs an industrial strategy that ensures there’s great jobs and opportunities everywhere, rather than concentrated in a few cities or regions. We need an economy that provides good jobs, world-class public services and strong worker voice and collective bargaining mechanisms in every part of the country.

This will help us to change the economy so that it works in a way that empowers people in their communities and workplaces. As a result, we’ll see the symptoms of our flawed economy, such as long commutes, begin to disappear.