Little to say for myself

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Commuter Misery

The longest commute in Europe has very little to do with poor public transport. That's a symptom of the problem, not its cause. It can be blamed squarely on the British weather, but not because of the famed "leaves on the line" and the "wrong kind of snow" that make such good seasonal copy. I reckon it's because the weather here is too good.

The British are a nation of gardeners, helped by the fact that our weather is so garden-friendly. It rains little and often, and we get neither the frozen winters nor the baking summers that most other countries endure. It's very rewarding to be able to tend your own lush green space, grow your own veg, and potter about outdoors - all only a couple of seconds from the rain-shelter of your own home (this is especially true if you live in the suburbs, where there is bugger-all else to do - vicious circle number one). So, Brits are unusually keen to have their own garden. Even in large cities, the vast majority of the population lives in houses with gardens - a lot of them no bigger than postage stamps, but gardens nevertheless.

Despite the fact that we live on an overcrowded little island, this insistence on owning our own plot puts a huge premium on land and drives property prices through the roof. To be able to afford something habitable, we are prepared to live a long way outside the cities where most of us work. The lack of community facilities in most city centres leads to them being wholly business-oriented and an unattractive place to live, forcing more people out into the suburbs (vicious circle number two). Property prices rise steadily, constantly outstripping inflation, putting pressure on people to buy rather than rent, to avoid getting left behind (vicious circle number three).

Go to a major city (or even a medium-sized town) in any other country and you'll find high-density populations living comfortably in central apartments. The absence of our peculiar desire to own a lawn the size of a picnic blanket means that their towns and cities stay populated and vibrant, allowing people to live near their work without sacrificing quality of life. The smaller proportion who do want to buy their own land can find something affordable that is still close to work. Because they don't suffer our ludicrous property price inflation, there isn't the same drive to get on the property ladder before it's too late, so they are happy to rent rather than buy. This also makes it easier to move when they change jobs.

This all has a knock-on effect to the transport problems that people wrongly identify as the cause of the problem. If people (voluntarily) have further to travel it takes them longer to get to work, meaning that effectively there is more traffic on the roads and rails even for the same number of commuters (if you multiply the number of travellers by their average commuting time). The problem is that easing transport problems (by putting in an infrastructure that is currently lacking) will only encourage more people to commute, or allow people to commute further in the same time. And building more houses in the commuter belt will only encourage those extended families and dysfunctional couples who currently live together to buy separate houses - so property prices won't drop appreciably, so commuting distances won't drop either.

The only way to tackle this problem is to find ways to convince people that they can live without gardens. That they can have a high quality of life even if their front door opens onto a landing, rather than onto what is laughingly referred to as a front garden.

Mind you, I can't talk. I live in a city-centre apartment (good), and yet I drive 35 miles each way to work in another town (bad). I drive rather than take the train because it's quicker (by an hour a day) and cheaper. I know it's not green, and I know it makes me part of the symptom, but an hour a day is a lot for a single parent. If someone could persuade my bosses to relocate here from Stevenage, I'd be one of the 28% of Cambridge commuters who cycle to work.

In the mean time, do as I say, don't do as I do.

posted by Plig | 14:22 |

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