The life of the long-distance commuter

The life of the  long-distance career-commuter has been a problem for decades.  Commuters leave home in the dark and get home at dark. They spend approximately 70% of your life either at work or commuting to or from work.  This is the sacrifice of the commuter.  And this is the sacrifice that more of us are having to make.

In fact, the sacrifices of commuters reminds you of the quote about working to live not live to work. However, like all quotes the schism between fiction and reality is wide. And it is this schism which reflects reality, not utopian views of work life balance.

So how does this divide affect the life of a commuter? Early in the morning tucked snugly in bed, you hear the alarm clock go off jump starts your body.  You quickly cobble together some breakfast, get dressed, straighten your attire and perhaps apply some minimal personal effects before rushing out the door. You begin your purposeful drive to work, or if you’re a train commuter to the station.

If you’re lucky, you may have a family member or friend to keep you company on your lonely commute.  But if you’re like the masses who live in the outer suburbs, there are few opportunities to connect.

And the numbers of people undertaking a gruelling commute aren’t just confined to committed career-commuters living in isolated pools of employment deprivation.  They come from the Central Coast, Lake Macquarie, Newcastle, Wollongong, Camden and other areas. And those who are unable to access the Sydney employment market are increasingly having to be intend with thin employment pickings.

In fact outer suburban and regional NSW houses vast pools of employment deprivation.  As a consequence, many commuters must flock to the four Sydney employment  hubs: Central Sydney, North Sydney, the North Shore or Macquarie Park.

Of course, being a commuter doesn’t mean that you’re completely cut off.  For car commuters, the advent of mobile phones and GPS, they can talk back to the outside world – ask for directions and apologise for being late. But they are still cut off from social contact and the deluge of information that is modern life.

By contrast, train commuting looks a very social exercise; but crude assumptions are often deceptive.  Sure, you’re surrounded by people while waiting on a  crowded platform. But they’re all probably strangers. Their interested in their preoccupations and pressures. And you’re interested in your preoccupations and pressures.

But waiting at the station isn’t the most individualistic aspect of train travel. It’s all about the hunt and the final prize. It’s like some primeval ancestor ritual.  You scan your environment for the train. Just before the train has stopped at the platform, your eye off the prize.  Undeterred by the intense competition, you make a quick dash for the aisle seats or the seats up or downstairs.

But even then the best laid plans can come unstuck. Sometimes the sight of victory is within your grasp – sometimes tantalisingly so – only to evaporate in a heart beat, when some else slots into your carefully-selected spot moments before you. It is then you have to resign yourself to standing for the fifth day in a row.

But finding a seat is more than just a competitive hunt; it also an exercise in how to navigate through crowds.    It’s rather like driving through a busy car park, you need a high degree of situational awareness. However, even then you can accidentally trend on someone’s toes!

And at the end of the week, particularly for full-time commuters, your body is gripped by a form of lethargy. The only time you feel free of it is Sunday and Monday. Monday rolls around and the trip home feels not too bad.  But by Tuesday, that creeping feeling of lethargy sets in.  This feeling increases the further in the week you get.

For those with no experience of commuting, I guess the best way to describe it is kind of a like a boot camp. But it isn’t a boot camp aimed at building your level of physical fitness.  The commuting boot camp is quite something else: it sucks the intellectual, emotional and physical energy out of commuters.  Heck even visitors from the country have been known to crave sleep after returning from a marathon trek to the city for the day! and yet commuters faithfully endure this trek every week.  Week in, week out.

And while most people would prefer to work to live, we need to ask if commutes could be made shorter; thus, breathing life into the bodies of many a commuter.

Our political representative could have created cities, which allowed people to live closer to work, or at the very least given them access to faster train services.

Part of the problem is the election cycle, where governments seem incapable of long-term planning.   But even the shortness of the election cycle doesn’t explain inadequate planning.

Is it that our planners are spectacularly inept at planning?  Well, not entirely.  If you’re talking about rail travel, the railways are funded by the states, not federal, unlike other countries.

And that’s where I believe the crux of the problem lies.  Basically, past governments haven’t been prepared to invest the money into fixing transport issues. Instead they have wasted vast amounts energising disengenous public relations campaigns that argue it is a mistake for governments to borrow.   Instead of using public relation as an economic rationalist tool to postpone public investment in infrastructure, they should have focused on providing people with the infrastructure they needed.

By contrast past governments saw public borrowing as an investment; they saw it as a form of nation building.  These days, vast amounts of money is poured into the pockets of rent-seekers. 


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