Admit It, You Miss Your Commute
The Atlantic|July - August 2021
You may have thought its only purpose was to get you to and from work. But it was doing something more.
By Jerry Useem

Back when commuting was a requirement for going to work, I once passed through a subway tunnel so filthy and crowded that the poem inscribed on its ceiling seemed like a cruel joke. “overslept, / so tired. / if late, / get fired. / why bother? / why the pain? / just go home / do it again.” “The Commuter’s Lament,” which adorns a subterranean passage in New York City’s 42nd Street station, made the already grim ritual of getting to and from work positively Dante -esque. But no one questioned the gist of it. The commute, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s research, ranked as the single most miserable part of our day. A Swiss study held long commutes responsible for “systematically lower subjective well-being.”

And then, during the corona virus pandemic, something bizarre happened. For many of us, the scourge we’d spent a lifetime bad-mouthing as a tedious time-waster went away. While essential workers have continued to brave the roads and rails—sometimes suffering truly punishing commute times—many others have lived for more than a year in a commute-less world. Some think they’re never going back to the office, while others are receiving “return to work” notices from their employers explaining that, come September, butts will once again need to be in cubicle chairs.

But here’s the strange part. Many people liberated from the commute have experienced a void they can’t quite name. In it, all theaters of life collapse into one. There are no beginnings or endings. The hero’s journey never happens. The threshold goes uncrossed. The sack of Troy blurs with Telemachus’s math homework. And employers—even the ones that have provided the tools for remote work—see cause for alarm. “No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity,” a Microsoft report warned last fall. After-hours chats were up 69 percent among users of the company’s messaging platform, and workers were less engaged and more exhausted.

In its pre-pandemic heyday, we very narrowly thought of the commute as doing one job: getting us to and from our place of work. But clearly, the commute was doing something more, something that we failed to appreciate. What was it?

In 1994, an Italian physicist named Cesare Marchetti noted that throughout history, humans have shown a willingness to spend roughly 60 minutes a day in transit. This explains why ancient cities such as Rome never exceeded about three miles in diameter. The steam train, streetcar, subway, and automobile expanded that distance. But transit times stayed the same. The one-way average for an American commute stands at about 27 minutes.

Marchetti’s Constant, as those 60 minutes are known, is usually understood to describe what people will endure, not what they might actually desire. But if you take the richest people of any era—who can afford to design their lives however they like—and calculate the transit time between their home and workplace, what do you find? J. P. Morgan: a roughly 25- minute ride by horse-drawn cab. John D. Rockefeller: an elevated- rail ride of about 30 minutes.

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