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The upside of commuting

Commuting is bad for the body and mind. It increases the risk of depression, takes a toll on cardiovascular fitness and causes weight gain. It has even, somewhat melodramatically, been blamed for ruining lives. The consensus is that commuting is a BAD THING.

But there is one group for whom commuting is a joy: the reader.

For those who love nothing better than to bury their nose in a book, commuting offers that most elusive of luxuries – free time. It is time when there is no exercise to be done, no beds to be made, no clothes to be washed and no house to be cleaned. There is no reason to feel guilty about what else you should be doing, because you are a captive, happily trapped in the carriage of a train.   

At this point I have to admit that I am new to commuting, after starting a new job just over a month ago, and perhaps the novelty will fade in the coming year. And my lot in commuting is not everyone’s – for many, there are too few seats, they are stuck behind the wheel in a traffic jam, or they need to catch multiple forms of transport before they reach their destination. But for me, for now, I am marveling at the time that commuting affords. Finally, I have an excuse to settle into a comfortable-ish seat (let’s face it – I’d perch on picket fence if it gave me time to read), book in hand and an hour to fill.

In the past couple of weeks, I have completed the endurance event that is Atlas Shrugged (sorry to mention that particular book yet again, but I’m still reeling from the amount of my life I gave up reading it!). I have breezed through Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and I have just started The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. The pile of books next to my bed is getting smaller and smaller, and I can see a point in time when I’ll finally get a chance to read more books by Aussie writers, delve into the world of crime fiction, and discover all of those classics I have yet to read.

My husband, a seasoned commuter, warned me before I started the job that commuting would be tough. And his wariness can be understood – he has commuted five days a week for the past couple of years. He is sick of unpredictable trains which run late for any number or reasons, are sometimes so full he has to stand the whole way to Melbourne and of getting home long after dinner following particularly busy workdays. He is not alone in his experience.

In an article titled 5 Ways Commuting Ruins Your Life, finance, health and even marriages are found to suffer the effects of commuting.  Commuters face a higher incidence of back pain, with a Gallup poll reporting one in three employees with a commute more than 90 minutes reporting either a neck or back condition. A study by the Office for National Statistics in the UK found that each minute of commuting affected anxiety, happiness and general wellbeing.

Closer to home, the Australian media has noted the rise of the super-commuter: those who spend more than 90 minutes getting to work. I find myself among these ‘super-commuters’, and even enjoy having that pre-fix ascribed to my working day.

Political and social commentator David Brooks doesn’t think there is anything to be so gleeful about. “The daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends. The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting. Eat more. Commute less.”

But I wonder whether, after a few months at home, in the domestic fray, my husband might not begin to think more fondly of that 60 minutes’ grace as the train rumbles through the Victorian countryside.

For, realistically, after children and amid the busyness of everyday life, there are few opportunities to just sit quietly. And it’s not just the opportunity to read that this affords – there is also knitting, catching up on the latest HBO series or podcasts, listening to music or simply staring out the window that can be done on the train.

Perhaps one of the reasons that many commuters detest the time they spend on route to work so much is because of the spectre of boredom. There they are, stuck in a seat (assuming they can find one), with NOTHING TO DO. However, this boredom does not have to be a bad thing. British philosopher wrote at length about the importance of boredom in creating intellectual space.

“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.”

He described some boredom as ‘fructifying’ – or potentially fruitful.  I’ve got a feeling Russell would have enjoyed commuting.

Some days, on the train, I put down by book and look out the window and see the passing countryside. There are farms, small towns, hills and bush land. Each time I travel, I seem to notice something I haven’t seen on the journey before; perhaps an idyllic country property or a leafy gully. As the city draws closer, there are the estates where houses huddle closely together, and then graffitied inner suburbs where balconies overlooking the train line are crammed with domestic detritus.

Sure, there are the inconveniences; the occasional smelly commuter, the late trains and the intense, bordering on undignified, stampede for lone window seats. There are also those health risks that are the lot of the regular commuter to consider.

But, in my early days of commuting my rose-coloured glasses are firmly in place. For, when I sit down on that plush V/Line seat, and sink into the pages of a book, I am far from the inconveniences and drudgery, in a world written in chapters.


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