Bits of Books - Books by Title
How 500 Million Commuters Survive the Daily Journey to Work
WHEN Fred Flintstone leaps into his Stone Age jalopy and starts off for the quarry where he works, he yells 'Yabba dabba doo.' For Iain Gately, this makes him a fascinating emblem of America's golden-age, 1960s automobile commuter. Fred could also stand for Gately himself. With zest and charm, the author tries to persuade us that commuting is not just something to be endured; it is a hugely important part of our lives.
Gately's previous books were lively histories of tobacco and alcohol, and the first half of this one whizzes through the story of commuting. It began with the railway boom of the 1830s and 1840s. The word 'commute' comes from the Paterson and Hudson River Railroad, which, in 1843, had the bright idea of allowing passengers to 'commute', or change, their daily fares into discounted season tickets.
If you think your morning journey is unpleasant, pity the early pioneers. There were no loos on trains until the 1890s, though you could buy a rubber bag-and-tube contraption. And while food was available, it was no better than today. Charles Dickens described 'a class of soup which enfeebles the mind, distends the stomach... and tries to ooze out at the eyes'; while Anthony Trollope grumbled in 1869 that 'the real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich'.
Americans had more serious problems, including the much-feared 'snakeheads' - iron strips that could uncurl from the wooden rails, then shoot up into the carriage above, like spears. In Britain, the real risks were run by the guards and porters, who sat up at the ends of the roof, like stagecoach drivers. To get between first-class carriages, they had to scramble across the top, risking burning - there were instances of porters dying while trying to put out fires in the luggage - and decapitation by tunnel.
The culture of Victorian commuting sounds far more familiar. English travellers preferred to have their backs to the direction of travel (chiefly to avoid a blackened face), while Americans, for some reason, were phobic about looking backwards. And while American rail travellers would happily talk to each other on journeys - and even play whist on boards balanced on their knees - the British preferred silence.
For those who could not keep quiet, The Times, in 1836, offered advice: 'Reserve bickerings and disputes for the open fields', it warned, and 'speak with moderation' if broaching politics or religion. If two English commuters did strike up a conversation, however, it was not thought to count as a proper acquaintance, and they were allowed to cut each other dead upon alighting.
This is telling. Gately describes commuting as a kind of purgatory - not because it is hellish, but because we pass through it 'between the poles of production and recreation that cap our days'. In the second half of the book, he turns to the present, and the future. When we commute, he theorises, we create temporary commuter identities, which may be why some people like it so much. It may also explain how we deal with 'crush loading' - the technical term for overcrowding on the Underground. Another theory is that, in a dense crowd, we enter the 'freeze, fight or flight' state - as if we were, all of us, frozen in terror on the Tube, looking meekly down at our shoes.
More convincing is the idea that we learn to objectify our fellow passengers: if we convince ourselves that they are not people, they don't trigger the otherwise normal emotional response to having a stranger's elbow in your ear, and your nose in another stranger's armpit. Objectification may explain why the Japanese tolerate being shoved into trains by the uniformed oshiyas, or 'pushers'.
At least they are not on the Mumbai Suburban Railway, where commuters endure 'Super Dense Crush Loading', and where 36,000 passengers have died in the past decade. One of the problems is the persistence of roof-riding, despite attempts to discourage it that include greased roofs, barbed wire and concrete balls hanging just above the roof. Still, 97% of Mumbai's commuter trains run on time.
For all his enthusiasm, Gately cannot deny some of commuting's nastier realities. It is alarming to learn that nearly 90% of London Tube-goers catch flu and other viral infections each winter, while only 50% of cyclists and walkers suffer. One chapter deals with road rage and its causes. Apparently, we read vehicles in terms of body language, so that in traffic we perceive a dominant display of our rivals' backsides up ahead. Meanwhile, we are unable to communicate with each other and thus defuse any hostility or tension. Pedestrian rage supposedly does not exist (Gately has not walked down Oxford Street with me), partly because we are able to apologise to each other. One psychologist has suggested that, to fix the problem, cars should carry electronic text displays; Gately wonders, drily, how many boards would be used to flash up: 'Oops, I'm sorry!'
At times, Gately's positivity feels fragile, like a tired-eyed commuter assuring you over his homebound half-bottle of red wine that he really values this me time. He describes a car commute as a 'twice-daily dose of freedom' and seems impressed, not worried, by Stuart Williams, of Ramsbottom, Lancashire, who travels 218 miles to his office in London - by car, train and Tube - and then makes the same journey home.
More books on Travel
TO THOSE who don’t do it and to many who do, commuting is joyless: dead time, a limbo between home and work. Not for Iain Gately. In “Rush Hour” he argues, vividly and largely convincingly, that commuting is to be celebrated, not lamented. “For the last century and a half”, he writes, “it has given countless people the opportunity to improve their lives.”
The book is in three parts, covering commuting past, present and future, from Britain’s Victorian railway boom to Elon Musk’s vision of a “Hyperloop” whisking Californians the 380 miles (610km) from San Francisco to Los Angeles in merely half an hour. Mr Gately points out the changes in landscapes, manners and entertainment (from drive-time radio to “The Jetsons”) that commuting has brought about.
People were eager to commute as soon as they had the chance. Early railway entrepreneurs expected to make their money from freight, but soon found that humans were more lucrative cargo. The railways’ mainly middle-class customers had no choice but to work in the stinking city; but, if they could afford the fare, they could move to fresher air in the fast-spreading suburbs. They have been doing the same ever since, getting to and fro by train, car, bus and bike.
A few take commuting to extremes, travelling even when they don’t have to. David Barter, a cyclist, started when his training partner began riding to work 18 miles away. Now Mr Barter cycles there with him—and back—before settling down to work at home. More conventional types spend their commutes reading, listening to music or just thinking: thanks to modern information technology, the time need not be wasted.
Of course, there are costs, even horrors. With no room to move in “super-crush- loaded” metro carriages, Tokyo schoolgirls are targets for chikan—salarymen in search of frottage. On the Mumbai Suburban Railway, Mr Gately writes, 97% of trains run on time, even during the monsoon. But crowding is even more extreme than in Tokyo (“super-dense-crush-loaded”); and more than 36,000 people have died in the past decade. Those who grumble about delays and overcrowding on trains into London (like this reviewer) should count their blessings.
One quibble is that too few references for the many statistics in “Rush Hour” are easily found in the otherwise meticulous endnotes. But the choice of Johnston Sans, the typeface of the London Tube, for chapter headings is a lovely touch. And Mr Gately is a good travelling companion—especially if you can find a seat.
Books by Title
Books by Author
Books by Topic
Bits of Books To Impress