Can we reinvent commuting to boost worker wellbeing?

Office districts are struggling as employees continue to shun crowded public transport. But what if a ‘well commute’ concept could revolutionise regular travel into the city centre?

As cities start to emerge from lockdowns, the typical office work-day has irrevocably changed after many months away from the central hub. While there is much speculation about the future of office life taking on a ‘hub and spoke’ model, re-energising towns and regional areas and reinventing the city centre with more focus on cultural uses, there has been a significant barrier to the return to the city office – the use of public transport.

Concerns over social distancing on crowded journeys are seen as being too high risk, while the time saved in not commuting five days a week has had a positive impact on wellbeing. So how can the experience of the commute, that so defined the office workers typical day, be revitalised?

The commute through time

The word ‘commuter’ derives from the early use of railways in 1840s America; the term described holders of a ‘commutation ticket’ that permitted multiple journeys over a period of time for a single reduced or ‘commuted’ fare. With the invention of the steam railway came the separation between place of work and place of residence. As the industrial age created jobs away from rural areas, cities developed as hubs for trade, commerce and connections.

In London, the advent of the first underground train line in 1863, the Metropolitan Railway, allowed passengers to live in the suburbs and travel to the ‘big smoke’ for work, in turn creating new suburban commuter towns surrounding the city.

The commuter has been essential to the vitality of the city, and the decline of public transport use during the pandemic has been reflected in the decline of the city centre experience: lunch places, cafes, and small businesses abandoned during lockdowns are struggling to recover.

Transport for London data shows that London Tube travel was reduced by 90 per cent in first month of the lockdown. This has resulted in a forecasted £500 million loss of passenger revenue across the transport system.

While recent reports have shown that there is no evidence of the virus in London underground stations following deep cleaning regimes, a psychological barrier will persist for longer, particularly with future lockdown restrictions.

Zone Out – positive psychology of commuting

Bookending the start and end of the typical office worker’s day, the commute has provided a clear work-life separation that has been missing in working from home. With back-to-back video calls and meetings from the kitchen table, one can experience information overload and ‘screen fatigue’.

Walking to the station and in the neutral space of the train carriage, these journeys can provide much-needed time for the brain to process the activities of the day. Whether it is used to prepare for the day ahead or wind down at the end of the work day, read or listen to audiobooks, podcasts or music, or simply daydream or catch a few winks, the commute allows the space for this to happen.

The new commuter

As remote working becomes the norm, people are likely to visit the office only one or two days per week. How can the journey be improved for the new, less-frequent commuter?

Pre-pandemic, the commuter-experience was one of overcrowding in rush hour, slow services, cancelled trains and disruptions on the line; leaving travellers feeling annoyed, tired and stressed. Emerging from the current climate of fear, anxiety and low confidence due to the pandemic, perhaps the future commuter-experience should be one that is less crowded, clean and safe, with no rush hour and the guarantee of getting a seat. In particular, the commute should be reclaimed as a space for the essential downtime of the work day.

A rewarding commute

Public transport has always been a part of the cultural experience of the city and many cities have special visitor cards tailored for the tourist, such as London’s Visitor Oyster card which offers discounted entry to tourist attractions. But what about the ordinary commuter?

In Tokyo, commuters using the Tokyo Metro lines can earn Metro Points or ‘Metpo’ using a PASMO IC card for weekday and weekend journeys, which can be used to pay for public transport or in participating stores and vending machines.

Hong Kong’s MTR Points can be earned on MTR rides as well as in station shops and MTR malls, and redeemed for shopping and dining gift vouchers.

In the US, schemes are geared towards encouraging the choice of taking the train over car travel, such as SolCal Explorer – Southern California’s Metrolink loyalty programme which earns members one point for every mile travelled, and can be redeemed for free tickets or used in local businesses.

The design of a similar system for London’s commuters that has a focus on wellbeing could be a way to revitalise the experience, reinforcing its function as an important space for reflection by supporting activities such as reading, music and meditation.

 Well-Commute concept

The ‘Well-Commute’ concept imagines a system that would allow commuters to earn points from their journeys via their Oyster card or mobile app, which can be used towards leisure subscriptions such as music streaming apps, audio or e-book services thus rewarding their wellbeing.

This could encourage people to use public transport through an improved commuter experience in the new, post-pandemic world of work. Rather than raising fare prices, revenue could be increased in a positive way, and in turn create new public-private partnerships with internet-based services and local businesses to re-awaken the experience of the city centre.

Whether a weekly visit to the office or a journey for leisure, the commute has a place in revitalising the city for the ‘next normal’.

Joveria Baig is an RIBA Chartered Architect with over 18 years multi-sector experience, including aviation and office design.
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