Just about every morning, around the time the traffic reports come on the radio, I remind myself to be thankful that my daily commute involves walking down a flight of stairs to my home office. One of the best things about my work-at-home job is that on most days I don’t have to deal with 90-minute train rides and monumental traffic jams.
I thought of all this when I read Nick Paumgarten’s entertaining piece in the April 16 New Yorker, about commutes from hell. Paumgarten tells about one woman's six-hour dailyy commute, argues that commuting makes people unhappy, and quotes “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam to the effect that unhappiness increases relative to the length of a commute. “Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness,” is how Baumgarten quotes Putnam.
That doesn’t make complete sense to me. Becase the downside of my no-commute life is that spending day after day at home with only your family and your laptop for companionship can be a little crazy-making. The isolation effect is especially bad out here in the hinterlands, where there aren’t enough welcoming distractions to get me through some days—no coffee house down the street to walk to, no welcoming corner tavern to kill time in. (It’s not that there are no coffee shops or corner taverns out here, just that they’re too spread out and tend to be not worth the drive.)
So one of the solutions I’ve worked out to the social isolation problem is to get on the train every once in a while and spend an occasional day in the city, where I meet old friends at actual corner taverns or coffee shop or sometimes even an art museum (something completely lacking out our way.)
It’s ironic: For me a train ride into the city is a cure for social isolation, and for the everyday commuter, if Putnam is to believed, it’s the cause of social isolation.
I guess that’s the difference between having to get on the 7:40 express and choosing to get on the 7:40 express.