Monday 26 August 2019

Conor Skehan: 'Tired of your long commute? Why it's time to listen to Albert Camus'

Instead of fuming about congestion, why not change the choices behind your commute, writes Conor Skehan

‘We are the sum of our choices. Take ownership of your choices’
‘We are the sum of our choices. Take ownership of your choices’

Conor Skehan

When, once again, you find yourself stuck on the road to Dunkettle, Naas, Headford or Adare feeling impotent rage, think about the advice of the French philosopher Albert Camus: "Life is a sum of all our choices."

Perhaps it's your congestion - not some anonymous misfortune that has befallen you. Perhaps you need to take responsibility that it's personal.

It's your commute, the result of choices that you have made. Perhaps you can change your choices and so change your commute.

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This is not some moralistic lecture, it's a real choice that is being made by many of the 1.8 million of your fellow commuters, all around you, every day who are rapidly changing how they travel to work.

In recent years, public transport use to work has increased by nearly a fifth, while walkers and cyclists have nearly doubled.

But these are just choices about how you travel to work - there are deeper questions about why you travel to work. Where you choose to live is the main cause of your experience of commuting. That choice is complex and includes many factors and these factors change throughout life.

Everyone assumes that affordability is the only factor that drives the choice about where to live - while in reality we also want space, convenience, status and amenity. No place offers the perfect mix of these - so some factors are traded off. Many people are surprised when confronted with the reality that additional commuting time is the true cost of the bigger garden, nicer view or better address.

At different times in our lives we make different choices. A small rented flat above a noisy yard with a view of pigeons seems to be fine in our 20s because we're right in the middle of the craic and near all of our friends. Once the biological clock starts to tick people become obsessed with having a big back garden, safe streets full of kids and a nearby good school or shops.

Many empty-nesters are beginning to opt for spacious apartments within walking distance of good amenities, shops and public transport.

People are smart and most people, most of the time, get this balance about right. In Ireland, as a whole, the average commuting time is about 28 minutes. While everyone has a story about someone who travels for 90 minutes each way, the reality for the vast majority - more than 90pc - is different.

People get frustrated once a commute exceeds around 35 minutes. It reaches a limit at around 45 minutes - after that people tend to eventually change the address of their house or their job.

This explains what Moycullen, Loughrea, Croom, Dunmore East, Midleton, Celbridge, Bray and Ratoath all have in common. They are all near the outer limit of the normal work commute into larger towns. In these places, around a quarter of the workforce travel for less than 35 minutes to town - the figures for Dublin are slightly different - with as much as 50pc of the workforce spending around 45 minutes getting to work. Remember, these are the outer limits - the average commute at 28 minutes is much less.

It is also important to remember that in addition to workers, there are more than a million other commutes every day - mostly to school and college - and these are an important factor when thinking about congestion. Who doesn't dread September traffic 'when the kids go back to school' and traffic seems to become snarled again?

Choices about school commuting - both by individuals and society - are an area with a huge potential to alleviate congestion. Two-thirds of all primary students and nearly half (43pc) of those in secondary school are driven to school. It is a major and avoidable cause of traffic congestion. This is madness. Most other countries all over the world have long ago recognised this and provide school buses. The cost is insignificant compared to the economy's lost productivity due to congestion.

The 'take away' from all of this is that commuting and congestion can and already are being significantly reduced by individuals and society. As our cities grow, as more of our fellow citizens are making different choices about where they live and how they move - especially in urban areas - more people, especially younger and older people, are reducing commuting and congestion.

However, there is still a long way to go. That 28 minutes of daily commuting is still time that could be better spent with loved ones or doing productive things.

There is still so much potential to reduce congestion and commutes. Many of these solutions do not involve big engineering projects. Most involve choices that include public transportation, smarter travel - including car sharing - and most of all the transition away from driving children to school.

Sunday morning can be a time to sit back and have a think - especially about the choices you have made and where they have brought you. Think about it as your commute and your congestion. You have choices to change what, where and how you live your life.

We are the sum of our choices. Take ownership of your choices.

Sunday Independent

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