Commuters, unite! Why cities around the world need to design better routes to work

The clock is ticking.
The clock is ticking.
Image: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr, CC-BY-2.0
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Commutes are getting longer all across the world, and as the 2014 transit fare protests in Brazil underscored, they are left ignored at a politician’s peril. Increasingly, commuters are banding together—despite the political chasm they exist in—to demand better, cheaper, and safer access to the cities they are commuting to and from.

Poor or lengthy commuting has been linked to (in no particular order): weight-gain, neck pain, unhappiness, anxiety, lower life satisfaction, lower sense of worth, divorce, depression, stress, mental health issues, and other health issues from increased exposure to air pollution. A 2014 study of 60,000 UK commuters correlates commuting with depression and anxiety.

In Paris, officials like to tout the fact that nowhere in the city is farther than 500 meters away from a metro stop. But note the in Paris qualifier. While the center of the city itself is turning into the ultimate laboratory of mobility, the surrounding areas are served by an overstretched commuter system (RER). Commuters are stuck with a quotidian slog onto a cramped, delayed, and dilapidated system, and recently took to suing the regional transit agency (RATP) to demand change.

The life of a commuter is a strange one. Commuters keep cities humming, but they usually come from outside, which means they have scarce political rights in the place to which they are going to work. In turn, they have few if any means to exert pressure for transportation improvement.

From a politician’s point-of-view, commuters should be easy to ignore. They are, by definition, no one’s constituency. But across the world, commuters are starting to demand change for a safe, affordable, convenient, and reliable transit system.

In 2014, not long before the football World Cup in Brazil, riots broke out over a 9% transit fare increase. It seemed marginal to outsiders, but that raise was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Commuters were being charged a higher fee for the one thing they were asking the city to provide, and had done a poor job of to-date. If you could sum up the riots in one image, this graphic hits the mark, showing the evolution of Rio’s metro system versus Shanghai’s in 1993 and 2013.

In Zambia, a book on “Commuters Rights” was recently launched to ensure better safety. Newspapers in Pakistan are actively tracking developments of commuter rights. In South Africa commuters are protesting the lack of public transit.

Rush hour in Bangkok, holder of the world’s fourth worst commute, with Jakarta taking top “honors.”
Rush hour in Bangkok, holder of the world’s fourth worst commute, with Jakarta taking top “honors.”
Image: Tali Trigg

The first step to fixing the problem is to understand the problem, which requires substantial amount of data collection and analysis.

Can the plight and misery of commuters really be quantified? Yes.

In the UK, data for daytime populations of cities are tracked to better analyze commuter movements and trends. The EU’s richest member country, Luxembourg, also tracks commuters from other countries, who swell the domestic population by about 30% each day.

In the US 2010 census, a new category details America’s “commuter-adjusted population” and lists the country’s top-20 cities with daytime population changes (#1 is Washington, DC). And in Brussels, seat of the European Union and host to many an itinerant politician and lobbyist, commuter issues have been self-reported at the highest levels.

Train delays have gotten so bad (a 3.5-fold increase in 10 years), that top EU politicians (including the Chairman of the Transport Committee in the European Parliament) wrote a letter appealing to the Belgian rail, to point out that they cannot deal with living there anymore.

If politicians fail to take up the banner of commuter rights, other forces will. The Pope, for one, has taken an interest in commuters. His recent Environmental Cyclical paid special note to inclusion of suburbs, and on July 24, the Vatican and a bunch of mayors launched an alliance of inclusive and sustainable cities. This included UN-Habitat’s Executive Director (and former Mayor of Barcelona) Joan Clos, who is shaping next year’s Habitat-3, a major political shindig taking place every 20 years. Top of the agenda: mobility.

It is an unusual consideration by the UN’s agency on human settlements, but transport is rising on the political agenda, reflecting the urgency felt by urban and suburban dwellers.

The next big commuting crisis may be in China’s planned megacity Jing-Jin-Ji, incorporating Beijing into a mega-metropolitan region of 130 million people into 82,000 square miles, or put differently, cramming one-third of America’s population into Kansas.

This epic undertaking will rise or fall by either one of two metrics: livability and services of the cities and suburbs themselves, and the commute to-and-fro. Unless infrastructure investment keeps pace with population, Beijing will keep breaking the wrong kinds of records.

For nearly every commuter-powered city in the world, it’s the same question: invest in improving commuter transit systems, or improve housing and services in the inner city with hopes for densification and urban efficiency? Commuters will soon let us know.

Follow Tali on Twitter @TaliTrigg. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Feature image by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.