The Curse of Commuting



… a heavy cost of job work, not so much hidden as ignored; and it shouldn’t be.

(c) 2013, Davd

If modern Canada (and the USA, and much of the E.U., and Japan, Australia, New Zealand) are, or quite recently were, more prosperous than ever before in history—why aren’t we happier? Two reasons have been featured so far in this “Men Working” series: The cheap, abundant raw materials that made the third quarter of the 20th Century prosperous, are no longer abundant nor cheap; and Material prosperity peaked sometime in the late 20th Century, but dollar measures didn’t make this clear (one reason being that the material “purchasing power” of money declines with the passage of time—the phenomenon usually called
“[price] inflation”—so dollar measures of prosperity will ‘grow’ for a while after purchasing power has ceased to increase1.)
A third reason is more subtle: The social restrictions attached to most job-employment degrade the quality of men’s lives (plausibly also of women’s, but i write as a man.)

This second section of the series could be titled, “Some Ill Effects of Conventional Jobs”. One of those ill effects is the separation of home and work. One of the great blessings in my life as a small-scale commercial herb gardener, was that i worked at home. I made “sales and delivery runs” as part of that self-employment, but they were recognized as part of the work2. Job work “alienates” the workman from his household—he must be at the workplace on specified hours; and with rare exceptions, the rest of his household may not be. This first “ill effects blog” will be about the trip from home to an alien workplace—“the commute.”

Commuting is a heavy burden on many workers in industrial societies—and as a rough generalization, the richer a society was in the third quarter of the 20th Century, the heavier their burden of commuting today. The USA is prime example: In the 1950s, it was the richest country on earth, and one of the Government’s great projects was the “Interstate highway system” of freeways, while private industry housed the families begun by the millions of post-War marriages—the families whose children are “the Baby Boom” now beginning to retire—in mass-produced “suburbs” of single-family detached houses on lots larger than most city lots (but much too small to farm.) Suburban housing generally cost less than equivalent housing in the cities around which those suburbs were built; it was new, and cars were affordable. Most of the fathers of the Baby Boom drove to work.

That was something new, back in the 1950s. My grandfather, for instance, lived about a mile from his job and walked to work, as did a large percentage of men in his generation. Often he would talk with neighbours on the walk to “the shop”, including about family life; if the neighbour had an electrical problem, for instance, Granps, who was an electrician, might stop by some day soon to fix it. Neighbourhoods tended to house men who were employed near by, and so the workplaces were socially integrated with the residential areas.

Many men before 1950 (and many of the minority of women who took jobs then) who didn’t walk to work, went to work on the bus, train, tram, or subway. Some bicycled, once the chain-drive bicycle became common. As a schoolboy, i walked to elementary school and bicycled to middle and senior-secondary school when the weather was good; in bad weather i rode the bus. What was different then, in the 1950s and late 1940s, was that there were few men left bicycling, and gradually fewer walking, to their work with “us kids.” More and more men, instead of living near their jobs or self-employed workplaces, “commuted”; and the word came to mean driving to and from work, usually more than ten miles each way and sometimes fifty or more3.

Less expensive suburban houses, fairly inexpensive cars, and cheap gasoline established the commuting habit as normal during my boyhood. It hadn’t been common, much less normal, “before the War;” and so, there was scant experience to guide the men who took up commuting. As it turned out, the cost advantages of suburbia decreased as the commuting habit became widespread: The difference between suburban and city house prices narrowed and eventually, city houses became less expensive in some metropolitan areas. Cars grew more expensive and so did gasoline. The “net benefits” of commuting decreased because of those increased “costs of suburban living”; but there is such a thing as social inertia; and at least as long as city living wasn’t much less costly, many suburban families stayed put.

As the Baby Boom children grew older, commuting’s interference with fatherhood became more obvious—and more a daily reality for commuting men. New babies are usually looked-after mainly by their mothers; and while they are being breast-fed, there is an obvious reason why. A commuter father could hold the baby a few times each day, see how he or she was growing, and maybe sing a lullaby. As children grew old enough to walk and talk, the difference between work-at-home fathers, walk-to-work fathers, and  commuting fathers became noticeable; and when the children started school, still greater.

A schoolchild might see his or her father briefly at breakfast; or if he commuted far, Dad might already be on the road to work. After work, the father, if a commuter, would arrive just about in time for supper, so father and child met again at the table. After supper, in spring and summer, there might be time for outdoor play before bedtime—but only an hour or two—and “homework” from school might steal that time from them, or put poor Father in the job of unpaid teacher’s aide, frequently confronted with whether to criticize the teacher and risk putting the child in Teacher’s bad graces, or deny his own thinking and attitudes.

It would probably be exaggerating to say that custody of children in the event of separation or divorce, changed from “father until good cause be shown otherwise” to “mother until good cause be shown otherwise”, because commuting became common. Commuting was a factor, though: Being away from home for 1-3 hours longer than were fathers who walked or bicycled to work, and arriving road-weary rather than mildly invigorated by a walk or bicycle ride, commuter fathers had less time and also less “energy” for their children.

The father who is a farmer or a tradesman working from his home, has about as much of the day for each child as Mother has. The father who has an hour’s commute to and from work surrounding an eight-hour work day plus an hour for lunch—and some commutes ran as long as two hours each way4—has 11 hours less at home, of which 3-5 hours are time when even school-age children are home. A walk-to-work father often had the children meeting him partway home and telling him some of their day while walking.

Suburban housing subverted fatherhood, with commuting being one of the chief ways. More generally, job employment subverted fatherhood when compared with self-employment. Working away from home means  working out of sight of the children, so they lose an immense part of knowledge of what their father’s life is like. City, small-town, and rural men lose much less time to commuting, and so are better able to father; but the improvement is relative, not complete, unless the father’s work is visible to his children.

Finland was one nation5 that was “poor” in the years immediately following World War II, because the terms of peace imposed “reparations”—penalties for being on the losing side—which were paid to the USSR in the form of trains, loaded with manufactured goods, that Finland produced and sent East, never to return, for no money. There was plenty of work for Finns to do, but scant pay and scant money to spend on other than the most efficient infrastructure. Post-War Finns walked, bicycled, or rode buses and trains to work; and such suburbs as were built were compact clusters of what Canadians now call condominium apartments, located near train stops for commuting efficiency.

Once the war penalties were paid, Finns benefited greatly from that efficiency. They had manufacturing facilities whose output they could now sell; they had well-established frugal habits with infrastructure to match; and they did not have habitual expectations that they would have many conveniences, much less luxuries. Most Finnish workers did not need to drive to their jobs, which saved them significant amounts of money and time.

As a professor on sabbatical in Helsinki in 1884-5, i lived much as a Finnish graduate student would have lived at that time: I rented a room from a local professor; bicycled to work on commuting routes that were snowplowed like arterial roads, and “sanded” with clinkers from a coal-fired electric-power plant6 after storms; ate in student and worker cafeterias or made sandwiches, and drank a lot of 0.5% alcohol beer (one tenth as ‘strong’ as typical Canadian beer) because it was untaxed as an incentive toward sobriety. I can attest from experience that the commuting costs surrounding a Finnish “job” were much lower than those surrounding a comparable job in Canada or the USA.  Finland was far from wealthy in the first 25 years after the World War; and sure enough, the burden of commuting was much less.

One final observation may be worth adding: Commuting is not limited to job-holders only. Millions of school children in Canada and the United States must ride school buses for more than an hour per day—and that in addition to waiting time that seems to take about as long as cycling or walking time takes for children who walk or bicycle to school, when waits at the school and at home are added up. This school commuting separates parents from their children’s lives: Instead of being able to meet with a teacher at the end of the school day and then walk home with his child, as a walk-to-job or tradesman father could do 100 years ago, the father of a bus commuting child must himself drive or take transit to the school—and often, transit is not available. Usually, the parent is forbidden to ride home with his child on the school bus—an example of bureaucratic rigidity treating parents with unjustified, de facto mistrust.

To sum up: Commuting is not nearly as old even as the “Industrial Revolution”; it is primarily a post-World-War-II phenomenon in North America, though commuting by train into very large cities such as London [UK] and New York was somewhat common among upper- and upper-middle-class workers earlier. It became established when great numbers of post-War marriages generated a huge demand for new housing; suburban housing was much more available and somewhat less expensive than city housing of the same quality; cars were available and fairly cheap, and gasoline was quite cheap. Lacking much experience of it, early commuters probably did not realize how much it would interfere with fatherhood.

As the quality and pay rates of available jobs decline, which recent news indicates they have begun doing, with no recovery of either job quality or “purchasing power pay rates” in sight; fewer workers will be able to afford long commutes and many will be unable to afford driving alone as a commuting method. I would  advise readers not to buy suburban houses whose only access to large numbers of jobs is by car. In fact, i would advise men generally to find self-employment work, by themselves or in co-operatives; and then find housing at or near their workplaces if those workplaces don’t include it.

Previous generations have made the commuting mistake and shown us what’s wrong with it. We can learn from their experience, and should avoid learning this lesson by our own.


1. More generally put: Our measure of prosperity is based on money, which basis is not valid.

2. .. including by the Tax Collectors, who treated the small pickup truck these “runs” required, as a working “farm vehicle” rather than a more heavily taxed “pleasure vehicle.” (The notion that commuting from suburbs or the outer portions of cities, to work and back, is a pleasure, might have  had some small vaildity in the very earliest years of suburbia, but by 50 years ago, with heavy “rush hour” traffic, it was quite evidently false. In a contrasting irony, my trips to two oceanside tourist-towns to sell to their finer restaurants, often were pleasant—as well-fitted work in general, should be.)

3. There existed and in many places still exist, “commuter trains” carrying passengers to work in very large cities including New York and Toronto; so the “driving” aspect of the meaning was principal rather than universal.

4. .. when one counted from the time the man picked up his tools or his briefcase and walked to the car, through driving, parking, being a little early for work to allow for possible problems in traffic, perhaps running an errand or two after work, buying gasoline, and unloading the car and changing clothes on arrival home.

5. I refer to Finland as a “nation” because its population is descended, for many generations, from ancestors who lived there; i refer to the USA as a “country” because its sub-parts use the name “state” and it is a melting-pot of many nationalities rather than being composed of one or two longstanding ones.

6. The “waste heat” from the generators was used to heat living and working space near by.

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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