Those who know either me or this blog will foresee that this post will be about commuting. In an Abelian group – named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel – all the elements commute. Whilst I have known the name of Abel for 30 years, it was only this week reading Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy that I realised what a short and tragic life he led. Compared to Abel, one W A Mozart Esq had a good innings – though, when it comes to the foundation of group theory, Galois wins in the dying young stakes at only 20 (in a duel). In its early days, group theory was a pretty dangerous subject – though I believe is a rather safer choice today.
Those of a less mathematical bent (what were you thinking?) will be pleased to know that the educational portion of this post is now over and I shall revert to the more humdrum definition of commuting. If I adhered to the principles of the late Lord Reith, I would now go on to inform and entertain – but we all know that isn’t going to happen.
I am lucky enough to work from home most of the time, and so rarely have to commute. However, I have served my time as a commuter (and may yet be sentenced again) and so know the general form. A large chunk of your life is consumed, in addition to that spent working, travelling to and from your place of employ. This is normally spent on a packed train or stuck in traffic (or, if really lucky, some of both) – adding to the time-taken and general stress and unpleasantness of the whole exercise. On a recent work-related excursion to the capital during the rush hour I found myself wondering how so many people have wound up in this situation. I can’t imagine anyone wants to spend so much of their life commuting (though I used to find it a good opportunity to read and catch up on podcasts), yet as a society we doom so many to this fate.
The costs to the nation must be astronomical. To start with we have the cost in time and money to the commuters, likely to be accompanied by a reduction in their productivity at work and utility to society as a whole. All those journeys add to injuries and deaths in rail and road traffic accidents and the air pollution produced leads to many premature deaths and additional calls on the resources of the NHS each year. As a country, the UK needs to maintain more and wider roads, plus parking capacity at the ends of the journey. The railways need additional capacity in rolling stock, track and signalling just to service the rush hours. The increased wear-and-tear also increases the costs of maintaining all this infrastructure. And this is a far from exhaustive list of the costs (a slightly tired list at best).
How did we let this happen? In slightly iffy weather – ¼” of snow perhaps – we are advised to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary and the economy doesn’t seem to collapse (though retailers will use it as an excuse for any poor results for the next year or two). Commuting must be taking a huge bite out of our GDP and can’t be doing much for people’s broader happiness. I must assume that jobs tend to be concentrated where people either can’t afford to live or don’t want to live. Sadly, one of the metrics which seems to be used to measure the success of a government seems to be how much more unaffordable they can make housing during their tenure. Despite an economic record that can most kindly be described as “patchy” (great if you’re a billionaire, less good if you’re disabled), the current chancellor has been very successful in creating a housing bubble. I do fear that in the not very distant future, only Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs and Hollywood stars will be able to afford to live in London (though will mostly leave their homes empty) adding still further commuting – or leading to the complete collapse of that city’s economy. Perhaps a good metric would be the number of new jobs created, or better the sum product of jobs and salaries, outside of a major conurbation – or as a start, just outside Greater London. Actually, the sum product of jobs and salaries either created (via their policies, or more commonly in their imagination) or destroyed by a government (directly in the case of the public sector, via their policies or in their opponent’s imagination otherwise) would be rather an interesting number.
I’m not entirely sure, in these days of electronic communication, why so many jobs have to be concentrated in a few conurbations. In my experience of office life, people rarely speak to the person sitting next to them (preferring the passive-aggressiveness of email) let alone visit a colleague on another floor or worse trudge to a distant part of the city. For a fraction of the cost of all the additional road and rail infrastructure we seem to need each year, I suspect every home, garden shed and cardboard box in the land could have state-of-the-art 3D video conferencing installed – though getting people to use it and actually talk to each other may be more of a challenge. I’ll admit screens aren’t ideal, so people could actually go see their colleagues from time-to-time: once a fortnight, say (but not all of the same day, obviously). Basically we could save travelling for when it is really needed or for the pursuit of fun and it might once again be a pleasure to journey by road or rail.
This would need some structural changes, I’ll admit – for a start, the whole basis of season tickets would need to be changed – but surely it has to be worth a go! We will, however, have to overcome our societal obsession with house prices, but I can suggest tons (or tonnes for the metric among you) of more interesting topics for the middle-classes to discuss over dinner – why not start with a little group theory?