Modern economics bases much of its analysis on the idea that people “maximise their utility”. The idea is that everything we do makes sense in some material way or other: the economic view of commuting would be that although people don’t necessarily enjoy it, they do it to earn money, which makes up for the effort in other ways. So you commute, which is a drag, in order to have the house and holiday and lifestyle that makes you happy – yes? Well, no, according to happiness studies. Cutting down on the commute is one of the few things people can do which genuinely makes them happier. According to one academic paper, “people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective wellbeing”. In other words, a difficult commute makes people miserable in ways for which money doesn’t make amends.
This is an academic finding that hasn’t crossed over into the wider world. I’ve never seen a film or television programme about the importance of commuting in Londoners’ lives; if it comes to that, I’ve never read a novel that captures it either. The centrality of London’s underground to Londoners – the fact that it made the city historically, and makes it what it is today, and is woven in a detailed way into the lives of most of its citizens on a daily basis – is strangely underrepresented in fiction about the city, and especially in drama. More than 1bn underground journeys take place every year – 1.1bn in 2011, and 2012 will certainly post a larger number still. That’s an average of nearly 3m journeys every day. At its busiest, there are about 600,000 people on the network simultaneously, which means that, if the network at rush hour were a city in itself, rather than an entity inside London, it would have the same population as Glasgow, the fourth biggest city in the UK.
John Lanchester. A sharply observed and thoughtful essay. I read it as someone who has walked to and from work for the past quarter-century, a habit that will end in a few months — though when I do become a commuter, it’s unlikely to take me more than ten minutes each way.