Can I Actually Be Missing the Commute?

Can I Actually Be Missing the Commute?

Harry Rush recently had some time on his hands because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t? He decided to use it to tally up the hours he would have spent c

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Harry Rush recently had some time on his hands because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t? He decided to use it to tally up the hours he would have spent commuting to his job at an investment bank were it not for the pandemic. He came up with a conservative 300 hours, not accounting for delays and other transit snafus.

That’s 300 hours not spent waiting on the platform in Glen Ridge, N.J., for New Jersey Transit; hours not spent sitting on a commuter train; and hours not spent walking from Penn Station to his office in Midtown.

But rather than feel overjoyed to realize that the pandemic handed him back 12 and a half days of his life, he felt wistful. It turns out, he misses the commute.

“The first thought was, ‘Oh, wow, this as an amazing amount of hours,’” said Mr. Rush, 57, who was laid off from his job in June, and so has no immediate prospects of restarting the commute. “But then it’s, ‘Oh wait, it’s the people you say good morning to and say have a nice weekend to, and all the other things that are the dedicated time on the train,’ ” he said, adding, “It’s your time.”

Of all the rituals lost to the pandemic, it’s hard to imagine that the daily commute would be one that people would mourn. It’s an activity usually measured in inconveniences. The length and ease of a ride to the office is often a determining factor in choosing where to live. (What listing doesn’t boast about the nearest train or subway station?) It’s hard to imagine that anyone would prize delays, crowds and time lost idling in tunnels.

And yet, some people do. After all the months spent working from home, these housebound workers miss their daily ride. Don a pair of rose-colored glasses, and memories of life as a straphanger may brighten. Some nostalgic commuters long for the hard break between work and home that a commute provided — the “Honey, I’m home!” moment.

Others miss the dedicated hour of personal time, a respite from calls and other interruptions with little to do but be in the moment. When else can you listen to a podcast from end to end or get through a New Yorker article in one sitting? For those who biked, walked or even jogged to work, the pandemic has stripped them of built-in workout time.

Part of the appeal is the uniqueness of the New York commute, one where most workers arrive at the office by bus, subway or train. A city commute is a distinctly social one. Sure, there are better ways to socialize than to squeeze against strangers on a crowded train, but the daily experience puts you in the thick of the city’s rhythm and provides uninterrupted time to people-watch, one of the little pleasures of living in a crowded metropolis. Lose that experience, and you may feel adrift at home.

An hour spent on a train or bus “is one of the main times that we’re really exposed to the thrum and buzz of city life,” said David Bissell, an associate professor at the school of geography at the University of Melbourne and the author of “Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities.” It’s “where we encounter all manner of people outside of the relatively small circles that form our social lives.”

Vanessa Connelly, 42, a vice president of sales for Brown Harris Stevens Development Marketing, used to complain about her commute from South Slope to Midtown. But after spending seven months at home with her family, she misses the ritual of getting the children off to school and heading to the office. “There was always this moment, specifically about the train. It really was a place where you were underground, you kind of have this pause. I can focus,” she said.

Surrounded by strangers, she could melt into the crowd and absorb the energy of the city. “I just miss the people and that feels strange to say,” she said. “It’s waiting in line to go up the escalator. All these things that used to be frustrating. I miss the crowds.”

When work and home collapse into one, you lose not only the connection to a wider world, but also the mental signposts that signal a beginning and an end to the day. If you can roll out of bed and already be at the office, work never stops. Likewise, if you can’t close the door on a pile of laundry waiting to be folded, or send the children off to school for the day, it’s hard to mentally set aside household duties.

A study published in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at worker activity during the pandemic and found that the workday lasted 48.5 minutes longer, workers sent 1.4 more emails a day, and they had more frequent, albeit shorter, meetings than before. The days just seem to stretch out.

“That blurring of the distinction between home and work life really makes it difficult to create hard stops for yourself,” said Evan DeFilippis, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School and the first author on the study. “You end up just doing a lot of work over longer periods of time because you just don’t have clear guidelines anymore.”

Jonathan Stevens, who is 28 and works for a health care technology start-up, has seen the rhythm of his workday change now that he no longer takes the subway from his apartment in Harlem to his office in the financial district. The daily 45-minute ride gave him time to slowly wake up, and the walk from the train to the office provided a few minutes to drink a cup of coffee and gather his thoughts. On the ride home, he had quiet time to text his mother in Chicago. “I definitely have compressed that mental readiness window,” he said.

Since Labor Day, when his office reopened, Mr. Stevens has been going into work once a week. But the commute is not the same as it was. Rather than relax and listen to music, he’s on guard, watching out for how many people board the train at each station, making sure he’s keeping a safe distance from those around him. “I’m heightened in my awareness,” he said. “I can’t tune out in the same way that I used to. It feels familiar, but at the same time foreign.”

Some commuters have found ways to improvise. Scott Cooke, a 45-year-old publicist who lives on Avenue B, used to bike to his office in Chelsea. The 20-minute ride was the highlight of his day. He got Covid-19 in mid-March and didn’t leave his apartment for a month. There are still days when he doesn’t go out at all, “which is so disturbing,” he said. And he finds his workday starts “before I even get started,” he said. “I’ll grab the laptop while I’m drinking coffee.”

With little to do outside, he has been forcing himself to go out on rides just to break up the monotony. “I’ll take a faux commute,” he said. After work, and before the sun sets, “I’ll ride over the Williamsburg Bridge. I actually ride with purpose, and then I’m like, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go.’”

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Source: | This article originally belongs to Nytimes.com

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