Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why I secretly love commuting

Commuting is the scourge of the modern age, right? Even if you're lucky enough to have a job you don't hate going to every day, the commute to and from it is nothing but a pain in the ass. By car, by bus, by train, by foot, by ferry, by bike. It adds up. Unless you buy or rent a place that's right on the doorstep of your office, you're going to be spending some quality time every morning and evening with your own thoughts and as many as a thousand other humans (the average 1973-stock Piccadilly Line train has a maximum capacity of 1238 people), none of whom really want to be there.

Except me. I live exactly 3.5 miles away from my office, and I take the bus. This 3.5 mile journey takes around 40 minutes in the morning and usually longer in the evening, depending on how late the bus service is running and when I end up leaving the office. I've been doing this bus journey for about eight months now, and I thought I hated it. Thought I hated it to the extent that I spent a lot of time plotting how to buy a car with no money. Yes, that's a euphemism for stealing. Partly because I miss driving now that I no longer live in Plymouth. Partly because owning and financing an automobile would allow me tick off another item on the list entitled, 'Adulthood'. And partly because it would at least halve my travel time every day.

The one thing I thought the bus had going for it over and above driving was the fact that a bus journey, although it throws me into much closer contact than I'd like with forty-odd strangers (some of whom smell noticeably bad, or have a habit of talking to me even when I put up my "I want to pretend that this very public space is in fact intensely private" guard, or like to sit at the back of the bus rapping along to violent, angry music), gives me a good hour and a half of daily reading time. My last job, though I drove to and from it, included 70 minutes of mandatory breaks every day, which was when I got my reading done.

But reading time wasn't enough to sell the bus to me. I dreamt of being able to leave the office whenever I liked, getting into a car and going straight home. No more negotiating pedestrian crossings with traffic light patterns weighted heavily in favour of motorists. No more standing around for twenty minutes because the driver of the previous bus was too impatient to wait and the next one is late. Minimal exposure to inclement weather. Car ownership was the stuff of dreams.

Now, though, I'm not so sure. I had the tiniest of revelations on the walk to the bus stop after work last night. Like the road to Damascus, except a lot more urban, and I didn't have to change my name.

My commuting time is also my thinking time. A significant proportion of the ideas I have, good and bad - short stories, plot twists, character development, terrible puns, blog posts - occur to me during the time I spend travelling. The same thing happened when I drove to work at the beginning of last year. I was working on a series of poems with very tight meter, and most of the metrical improvements I made originally came to me while I was driving.

When I read on the bus, especially in the morning, I'm usually only half-reading (unless the book is particularly engrossing). I put the book down a lot to think. Commuting is just about the only time I'm truly alone with my thoughts. If I spend the evening alone, I'm usually jacked into my laptop with music on; any potential thought-space is crowded with verbal and aural information. The rest of my time involves at least some degree of social exchange, which (as anyone who saw the media fuss about introversion this week could tell you) is both rewarding and exhausting. The commute is the downtime that I need, and it's the time I spend thinking about everything beyond the details that preoccupy most of my day. If I had to describe the last five or six times I thought about big-picture stuff - the huge, pressing questions that used to entrance me for hours at a time when I was younger - I'd bet you decent money that I was somewhere between Mill Road and Milton Road, on a bus.

The cliché of people having their best ideas in the shower is not as silly as it sounds - showering, along with commuting, is one of the few everyday experiences which involves minimal social stimulus. And it's the time that's freest of social stimulus which is the most rewardingly ruminative.

The travel time that I wanted to slash in half with my very own Model T Ford is, it turns out, incredibly precious to me. It's when I do the wondering and reflecting that used to take up most of my thought-time as a child, but which has slowly been encroached upon by the massive shift in the way that I live now. I hated the two long bus journeys it took to get to secondary school, because at that point I had more than enough thinking time. I was constantly looking for ways to get outside of my own head. But now, although bus travel has become no less frustrating since I left school, it's also one of the few chances I have to do some proper thinking.

If you're anything like me, you probably think you hate your commute. It's the insulation on either side of the working day that cuts into your precious free time. But maybe - just maybe - it's also the best opportunity you have each day to do the thinking that gets marginalised by the rest of your life. And, for that reason, commuting perhaps deserves a better reputation than it has.

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