Commuting is generally not an experience to be relished. The hours lost in a useless limbo traveling to the workplace and back, day in, day out, are not generally ones that are well-spent or enjoyable.
In the past, my family and I have moved towns in part because the commute was getting us all down. Mainly me, because over recent years I’ve been the one doing the daily slog in and out of London.
I’ve tried lots of things to make the experience more bearable. For a few years, I’d use a 30-minute train journey to be productive on the laptop, coding a feature for the project I was working on. But after too many near-miss experiences trying to perch a laptop on my lap among the crowd of tired fellow commuters, I gave that up.
The commute was almost designed for email though, so I reverted to that for a while. Yet there’s something horribly depressing about spending your morning hunched over your phone trying to get the most out of your already-tired thumbs. Not least that these early-morning “sent from my iPhone” missives obey the viral coefficient of email — on average, every email sent begets more than one email in response.
This year, I stopped trying to use the time productively to send emails on my phone. Life is too short. So what does that leave us with? I love a little banter on Twitter, yet I’ve noticed that there’s a general air of tiredness there nowadays and my interest quickly wanes. Games? If I find myself playing one more game of Two Dots I might just have throw the device across the carriage! Why do we do this to ourselves?
Sadly, there is no escaping the fact that most of us are still a far cry from that wonderful world we were promised when the web first came along. Work from the beach! People won’t need to travel to work any more!
From my experience, we’re still a long way off from really being able to adopt a remote lifestyle, particularly when there are children involved. It’s just not the case that I could relocate my family to a beach somewhere and live the good life. I’m too interested in the city. In my case, London. The people, the opportunities, the challenges, the grit of it all. I just can’t give that up.
So I commute. In and out of the city. Every day. There and back. And repeat.
Hacking the commute
This summer, I decided to make a change. I’d realized that I particularly dislike the Northern line during the rush hour. The smell, the discomfort, the crush, the trudge, the general dehumanizing feeling; the pretense of staring at the same advertisement for the tenth time because you’re squashed so close to someone that you can’t even get your phone out without worrying about making contact with them and it being awkward. The nagging sensation that you might be being filmed for a modern-day version of Koyaanisqatsi.
I’d tried all of the usual ideas: saving interesting reads into Pocket so I had good stuff to read, podcasts, taking a book. Nothing was making much of a dent in improving this generally quite-depressing daily experience.
Until I bought a kick scooter, that is. Yes. A kick scooter. Bear with me.
A kick scooter is a magnified version of the kind of thing that you see kids riding around on — a skateboard with a pole at the front and two handles. Maybe you tut at them sometimes. Mine has two oversized wheels and a brake. People definitely tut at that.
It’s not road-worthy (you’d end up under a bus after hitting the slightest pothole) and is powered by you kicking yourself along like you’re riding a skateboard. This means it’s legal, and designed for, riding on the pavement, which confuses people.
It looks like this:
Ahem. Still with me?
Optimize for happiness
This is a strong statement, but buying this kick scooter has made me significantly happier than anything I’ve bought in years. (Disclaimer: I’ve got nothing to do with the particular company that made my scooter, and I don’t have any way that I benefit from telling you this, other than someone maybe eventually tweeting me, “I got one too! It’s great!”)
Because scooting is faster than walking, it changes your daily rhythm. You get to the train station or bus faster. Suddenly I have an extra ten minutes in the morning that I save based on getting to the train station.
You know what that actually means to me? It means I can drop my children off at school in the morning and still get to work on time. It means I get to exchange a word or two with the teachers and the other parents, and I get to see my little boy go into his class, waving.
My scooter saves me those ten minutes, but my gosh are they valuable minutes.
I drop the kids off, scoot to the station, jump on the train and then fold the scooter under the seat so it doesn’t bother anyone. Phew. I have to admit that perfecting the folding action has echoes of Full Metal Jacket, but I’m aware I already look quite ridiculous. So what’s a bit more?
The train ride remains as it was: unhacked and unimproved, with me trying not to make eye-contact with any of my fellow commuters and pretending to find the print ads absorbingly interesting when not staring at my phone.
My “commuting” journey ends when I arrive at the train station at London Bridge. And that’s when the real fun begins. Up until recently, I’d then have had to endure the tube to reach my final destination.
Instead, click, click, click. And kick. I’m riding on my scooter all the way to my studio up in Shoreditch.
Every day, I feel this immense satisfaction. It’s like jumping on a snowboard in a room full of depressed bankers. I smile, I glide along, making sure to give everyone I pass a wide enough birth that I’m not going to bump into anyone. I time each step. I know how to pass that particular obstacle so that I don’t get surprised by someone coming the other way. I kick and kick and kick, then I swap legs by jumping from one leg to the other, and kick and kick and kick.
Then I’m over the Thames, and the bridge rises up in front of me. Suddenly I’m just gliding through the crowd with a stunning view of London in the morning light. Tower Bridge looking magnificent as always –the view that you’d wish for when you first come to live here.
Then it’s downhill. I brake and make sure I’m going slow enough not to stress anyone out. And then it’s the assault course of the London streets, all the way to my destination.
It’s so mentally stimulating. Timing the people around you, timing the cars, the lights, looking at how you’ll maintain a safe speed and direction whilst factoring in so much movement around you. Occasionally I stop and walk. But the whole journey is like solving the puzzle of a city.
I never think about unsent emails when I’m scooting. Instead I use that time to think about what I’m really doing that day. The inability to pop out a phone and stare at it is liberating. Because I see the opposite on the streets every day.
A world of phone zombies
I’m sure we’re all guilty of walking along, oblivious to the world, checking the phone for something that’s probably unimportant but feeling so bored of the city around you that you bury yourself in social media.
I enjoy dodging past these zombies every day because it makes me feel that I am being mindful of myself, who I am and what I’m doing with my day. I feel quite sorry for them in some ways. We live in an amazing place, and using my feet to kick myself around lets me explore it in a way that I’ve not really been able to before.
“I wonder where this street goes” is a question that’s been lost to Google Maps and our possibly overly-efficient navigation of cities. I think it’s interesting to take that unknown path and become more familiar with the place that I call home.
And so I kick, rest, kick, and smoothly flow through the city. I arrive at my destination puffed out and usually elated. Whoever I see first will receive a warm welcome. I’ve skipped the underground and the horrors within. High five! I notice that others arrive in a much more subdued way, and I love sparking a conversation with the first person I encounter at my studio to try to help balance things out.
I view all of this as a positivity hack. It’s remarkable what a big difference this tiny, cheap intervention has made. Sure, there’s no telling what comes later, but starting your day with something that makes you say “that was fun” is an experience we can all strive for.
“But you’re a grown man!”
I was chatting with a parent at school at drop-off time, and she concluded her opinion of me and my scooter with these words. That’s probably why I’m writing this piece.
I have a feeling that what I’m doing here does look ridiculous. Most days I wear jeans and a t-shirt, so I generally pass unnoticed. Some days, however, I have to look smart, and the astounded looks I get from other commuters are sometimes hilarious.
But there are other things that I think look more ridiculous, and not in a nice, “Oh gosh, isn’t Stef adorably quirky” way.
I was scooting over London Bridge the other day when I stopped for a moment to take in my situation. There were two lanes of cars, static and pumping out pollution, mostly with one occupant each, alongside a steady flow of people walking alongside much faster than the cars. I noticed a guy sat there looking furious in his brand new Porsche.
I looked at the guy in the Porsche and thought, “I actually feel richer than you right now.” He’d spent all that money to sit there in traffic, burning fuel for no reason, and here I was embarking on a joyful scoot across the city.
In a few years, I really think the tables of what looks ridiculous will turn. We’ll look at grown people who burn petrol to get to work with scorn. It won’t be long before the Porsche driver starts looking much more ridiculous than little old me on my £100 kick scooter.
I realized I’d been staring when he caught my eye. I scooted off smiling, while he continued to be frustrated and stuck in traffic.
If you take one thing from this piece, let it be this: a tiny alteration in a part of your life, maybe one that you don’t really even think about, can have a surprisingly big effect on your happiness.
What part of your day can you change even slightly, in a way that might raise a smile or lift your mood?