This post was written in November 2014 - and forgotten about!
Driving the Commute
The M4. A previously relatively unknown carriageway (particularly westbound) for me. It’s now become around 90% of my commute to a new job. It was a little daunting, I have to admit, taking the motorway to work. Previously I had a 15-20 minute journey down a dual carriage way between two towns, and rarely did I get home after 5.30pm. Now I have a 55 minute trip on a nationally known road, and no other option.
In my former Northamptonshire based life, my commute was a bit more flexible. Multiple options in route were available as most of the trip was driven through countryside. This made the trip each day more adaptable by zigzagging through villages, if needed, if, for example, a road was closed or there was extremely heavy traffic. I was also frequently on a site visit at the beginning or end of the day, which meant I often took different routes to work, and sometimes it meant I arrived at my desk a little later in the morning, and possibly left a little earlier, avoiding the normal rush hour routes home.
Unlike other routines, which can often soothe, the routine of the commute is something not welcomed? Why do we hate the commute so much?
The worst part for me is the unpredictability of the traffic. The flow of traffic, the pure volume of motorists, the weather impacts… This morning, my commute was incredibly quick. I found a shortcut to the motorway and the traffic was almost non-existent. However, even after just a week in the new location, I can see that the commute to Bristol varies significantly. Homeward bound seems significantly more busier than heading into work – yesterday my 'under an hour' trip took over 80 minutes. Horrible. The variation in this trip time drives me crazy (no pun intended). I don’t like to be late (home or to start in the office) and a feeling of guilt stays with me all day.
Accidents, of course, affect every road in the country. As frustrating as it can be to sit in a queue of stationary cars, I thank my stars I’m not involved. That driver’s commute is a hell of a lot worse than mine, today.
I read recently that it’s more conducive to a happy life if you buy a smaller house but manage to find somewhere in a shorter commute distance. Essentially, the shorter commute is more valuable than a more spacious homestead. The torturous extra time sat in queues or numbly following a line of tail lights home for additional miles is not, as the scientists are suggesting, a fair compromise to having that extra space at home.
We can’t forget that other forms of commuting exist. I haven’t been lucky enough to have a train to commute on in my seven years of professional life, but I would welcome that option if it became available. I would relish the half hour of switching off, a little extra nap time, or some time to read. More and more I find I have limited time for my novels, and a commute where I could totally switch off and let someone else transport me would be wonderful. I would be interested to see a study comparing commuter happiness between drivers and train passengers...
And biking – great for your health, a quick toning exercise for butt and legs, and who can enter the office feeling anything other than refreshed after a winter morning ride? If I could live within around three miles (20 mins or so riding, I guess), that would be perfect. It might prove a little challenging when it snows, but here in the south of the UK the White Stuff doesn’t happen even every year.
Many people reading this will think ‘hah, I do double her mileage!’ or scoff at my dislike of efficient, mainly well-flowing motor routes the UK is proud to have developed, but I personally feel like anything longer than 30 minutes on the road each way, each day, is my limit. I love my car, I enjoy listening to the radio, and I do, for the most part, enjoy driving – on my own terms. Driving in rush hour traffic is not what I call ‘my own terms’. A new term I learned this week was the ‘extreme commuter’ – two words which make my stomach clench. Extreme sports, yes, I'll try those. Extreme cooking (not much more than ‘freezer roulette’, really!), most weeks. But extreme commutes - no thanks, not for me.
I learned within an hour of my first day at my new job that in a week the office would be relocating further west. Having not been warned about this in the recruitment process, I was more than normally concerned about the change and the extra driving. I was already doing 45 minutes to work and didn’t relish the thought of more. I don’t have a company car and I am not on manager wages. This move would be very inconvenient, to say the least.
The fact that you may have no choice but to commute (no local jobs available, perhaps, family reasons etc.) also makes the idea of travelling so much each day laborious. And when your commute, like mine, is unexpectedly lengthened for reasons beyond your control, it takes some strength to suck it up. Working previously for a Local Authority, there was little scope for relocation of offices, even within the same town, let alone across the county. However, the private sector is very different … I am learning! Fingers crossed there’s no more moves for a while, especially now we're thinking of buying a house!
Enough moaning, reflecting. What am I doing about this?
My husband and I have been talking about moving closer to Bristol anyway (now there! - Lou - April 2015), so that’s not a totally alien conversation to have. We have decided to move a little closer to the city, if possible, rather than live in a satellite town or village, thus cutting the commute. It’ll only be for 6-12 months until we’re ready to make the steps to buying a property, but hopefully we’ll have a better idea of what my (our) commute will be like following the office move (I am dreading the M4/M5 junction traffic!). I’ve already scoped out the walking distance from the nearest train station and it’s not really doable if you add on the Swindon-Bristol train times, but hopefully being a little flexible in living arrangements for the time being will help.
I also find that reminding myself I did and do want this new job helps. Life, to a great extent, is not plan-able. What did John Lennon allegedly say?
"God laughs at a man with a plan."
Things happen which make future planning a little difficult or even redundant, but with some careful decisions, good communication with family and partners, changes can be made to improve the quality of your life – namely, of course, your commute. You need to decide what is more important to you, how your finances will cope, and what the pros and cons are. The answer may be clearer than you thought, if you’re banging your head against your steering wheel.
Driving should not dominate your life. I like to think I am quite green-minded, but the need to commute isn’t really in line with this philosophy, and I hope it changes soon. The longer commute, I am aware, is a normal practice for millions of people – did you know 3.5 million Americans commute over 3 hours a day? – but it’s not for me. Watch this space! (I'm now biking each day! Yay! - Lou - April 2015)
Six Top Tips for a Nicer Commute
1. Make sure you have a bottle of water on hand in case you get delayed. This will help with concentration levels and alertness.
2. If you’re hungry when you leave, have a small snack. Being hungry on even a short journey is not fun.
3. Try to work out if your journey time is altered for better or worse if you leave at a different time. A friend of mine says if she’s just five minutes later leaving the house in the morning, the traffic is so much worse.
4. Be prepared – in the winter, make sure you carry a blanket and a torch in the boot of your car. You’ll welcome them if you breakdown.
5. If you take the train, remember some lines now host free wifi. You could start your work day while you’re travelling and the possibly leave a little earlier in the afternoon.
6. Grabbing a book can help you unwind – take a good novel on the bus or train and start your evening relaxation a while earlier.
And be grateful this isn't your commute!!!