The (almost) Pointless Commute

 This morning, on the way to an appointment, I dropped my husband off at a conference venue. Like most South Africans of working age who travel to a place of work, most of the journey was spent in slow moving queues. What should have been a 20 minute journey took 45 minutes. This is 45 minutes of fuel being wasted, fumes in the air, wear and tear on the car and a waste of time that could be spent more productively. Perhaps once upon a time we didn’t have a choice. If you wanted to work, you needed to travel to work and the country just had to accept the negative social and economic impact of the commute. Today we should have a choice. We can restructure our time and our work life differently. Or at least, we should be able to, so why don’t we do so?

At the moment, Gautrain advertises that you could reduce the time lost to the commute (or gain time) by using the Gautrain. The sandpit spat over e-tolls – an important issue – is seen only in terms of scrapping it or enforcing the user-pay principle. The topic of the annual South African Transport Conference currently taking place concerns the readiness, or not, of South Africa to manage/embrace/capitalize on disruptive transport technology.

Should we not bring the three issues mentioned above together and consider that maybe yesterday’s answers will only entrench yesterday’s problems?  In an age where many private car users travel to work to use computers, we should reduce the need to travel to work by working within walking distance of home. Not working from home, because going to work fulfils certain very important functions, but working in a high-tech facility nearby our homes.

This would require re-purposing our neighbourhoods to be future fit. It would also reduce the demand for road space during the commute, lengthen the repair and maintenance cycle, reduce the need to build new roads as often, reduce health spending by encouraging walking to work, remove the stress of the commute and improve family life. In addition, it opens up opportunities for better social integration in neighbourhoods, more local work opportunities and better social cohesion.

We should be reducing the need for the commute, not trying to simply modify the options. So why don’t we do so if it makes sense on several levels? There are many reasons. These include the absence of a political will. The inability to see the bigger picture. The endless striving to achieve some imagined Nirvana of the 1980’s rather than to build for the future. The lack of dynamic leaders with a broad frame of reference and an ability to scan the horizon. The absence of conjoined thinking (joined up thinking) in government. The petty spats of political leaders. Low levels of education and even acceptance of these. The lack of responsibility and accountability for socio economic ills including stress related illnesses, unemployment and a breakdown in social relationships. A vested interest by small groups in keeping the status quo – the travel patterns – rather than investing in the future. The list is endless.

What can we do? Speak up and demand more from both politicians and business.