In 1986 Halley’s Comet last passed by our planet making the most recent of its long-haul visits. I hold a hazy memory or gazing up at a cloudy Devonshire sky, keenly trying to spot the celestial vision. Typically taking around 76 years for a complete return, the comet comes within 88 million km of our sun at its nearest and roams way out past Pluto at its furthest distance, some 5 billion km into the Kuiper Belt. Now thirty-five years after I witnessed its fiery tail, it is still outward bound not reaching its aphelion, or furthest point from the Sun, until November 2023. This long-winded journey appears sluggish, but this is a deception. The comet ratchets up a velocity of 254,000 km/h, it is a committed and tireless voyager, slow it is not. The scale of the journey is difficult to fathom. Decades devoted to an outward haul through the vacuous cosmos before pivoting for return. At a smaller and more intimate scale we may relate to this pattern in our own increasingly lengthy and vast commutes.
Throughout the mid 2000s there were numerous stories of a new breed of work traveller, the ‘super-commuter’. This is a cohort typically defined as people who spend more than 90 minutes each day on one leg of their journey. The UK consistently boasts the longest commuting times in Europe, with Londoners typically travelling two or more hours each day, and workers in the North of England having the longest duration at stops on their commute. One commuter who relays between Wales and London five days a week, wakes at 3:30am each morning and drives over 100,000 miles a year. Over the last two decades there has been a discernible growth in the number of workers making these long treks. The most popular super-commuter route in the US is the 322km (200 mile) journey between Tucson and Phoenix which an estimated 55,000 workers travel daily. But cities such as New York and San Francisco appear to attract super-commuters with more elaborate and extended travels. Some years ago, The New Yorker reported on a woman who travels 3 hours and 15 minutes each way on her daily commute as a legal secretary in Manhattan. At the time of the report, she had been making this loop five days a week for five years. So divergent are commuting patterns that the 90-minute classification appears redundant after a quick exploration of modern work and travel trends. Time is not the only constraint, distance, and modes of transportation all converge to make this topic far more nuanced and curious than it may first appear. For instance, a commute across a large city in public transport can easily take more than an hour and involve walking, a bus, the subway, ferry or trams. Anyone stuck in Bangkok traffic knows how time and distance can collapse in the back of sticky and humid taxi. As a result, the term super-commuter and its affines, the mega-commuter, radical-commuter, and extreme-commuter are poorly distinguished.
I recall a weekend camping trip with a group of friends on one of Hong Kong’s more remote beaches that, in order to access, required a hike of a couple of hours, preceded by a bus or ferry journey deep into the country park. One of the group arrived late in the evening. He had travelled from work which happened to be a business meeting in a North American city. After landing in Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok airport he got a taxi as far as he could and hiked through the night to get to the beach. his plan was to stop briefly at home the next day before jetting off to Singapore. Too often the focus on super commuters lingers on the car and the road and overlooks air travel as a component part of the contemporary commute. But super commuters are likely to be in airports too.
We use the word ‘commute’ because it relates to the special status once conferred on travellers. Ever since the early growth of great cities such as Rome and Paris, people travelled increasingly long distances on foot as part of their daily toil. In Western Europe the Industrial Revolution brought with it a boom in scheduled travel to work. The rush hour was typified by a mass of people walking to the factory gates much like an L.S. Lowry painting. The wealthy in early nineteenth century London began to use the horse drawn omnibus before the steam engine arrived and changed everything. But these travellers were not commuters proper. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the term began to gain popular usage for workers who travelled by train and received a ‘commuted’ fare, in effect a less expensive ticket as a nascent loyalty scheme. To commute is etymologically related to the notion of reducing or alleviating a punishment. Plush executive airport lounges may be characterised as a derivation of this long-standing relationship, rewarding repeated and valued patronage. However, for many of the world’s most radical commuters, it is the freedom to live where they want and maintain a career they value that truly commutes the sentence.
The Cost of Travel
A number of assumptions about super-commuters abound. Firstly, that travel is always a burden. Rather ingeniously the committed super-commuter finds ways around this. Digital networked technology has made long distance travel more palatable as an unending supply of music, podcasts, and audiobooks can be streamed without having to schlep around discs and tapes. The fact that you can do all sorts of things while waiting in your car, from learning a language to training your embouchure is arguably a component part of the growth of super-commuters. If you are a passenger there is ample opportunity to catch up on work while you travel, attend to domestic admin, or liaise on the phone with family and friends. These are often some of the justifications offered for long travel, because despite the benefits, people are encouraged to see their commute as a compromise. A second issue relates to wellbeing and the research often confirms our concerns. In Sweden a study found that couples were more likely to separate if one of them was involved in a long-distance commute. Additionally, the health consequences of super-commuting point to poor diets, lack of exercise, and stress. Sitting endlessly in a car is not only bad for your waist line, it is considered isolating and lonely. Though one must consider and compare these daily sojourns with the less frequent but concentrated commutes. Is it more stressful to travel every day for a few hours, or once a month for a few days? It’s a question many people are choosing to answer with their frequent flyer points. A final stereotype is that long commutes are not sustainable, that they serve as a stopgap between moving home or finding another job. For many people this may be true, but it also undermines our modern work patterns where long-term jobs in the same corporation are equally less common and unappealing. If a job isn’t for life, our home may be?
It is inevitable that travel to and from work might be regarded as wasted time. Sisyphus is the apt example here, with a lengthy commute being equated to some futile punishment. He pushes the boulder repeatedly up the hill only to helplessly watch it to roll, inevitably and eternally, back down. It seems that we might be in a similar unending cycle of travel, departure, and return. This is kin to what the late anthropologist David Graeber referred to as ‘Bullshit Jobs’, work that deep down we know to be absolutely futile. Could we not suggest that much of this cyclical travel is a ‘Bullshit Commute’? Perhaps so. In fact, one of the celebrated consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the disruption and re-ordering of our working schedules. Many have now replaced their daily haul with the micro commute from the breakfast table to the home office, some not even that far. It seems quite plausible that this enforced flexibility in working arrangements has deepened the ranks of those super-commuters travelling further distances but much less frequently.
The rhetoric around super-commutes is predictably negative. Symbolically it represents stagnant wages, lack of housing, rising costs of living. But this too often overlooks the technological transformations that made it possible. Choices have been made. The willingness to work in one country and live in another, to hop on and off multiple modes of transport signals that our jobs are important. The jobs we hope, if not spiritually fulfilling, are at least in part lucrative, challenging, and not entirely bullshit. We choose a particular career and lifestyle because it presents an opportunity. Commuting is not simply travel to work, but also an adjunct to the strategies we employ in our schemas for life. We prioritise space, good schools, social life in the balance of our careers, salaries, and opportunities. We know that even within the city we still must travel, why not circumvent the worst of it? Perhaps most importantly, amidst a fast-paced life, the commute is precious time to oneself.
Peeling away some of the prejudices of travel reveals that there are also joys to commuting. One neologism that comes to mind is that of the community, those who share part of your same travel itinerary. Familiar faces on the subway whose absence on a particular day may abruptly punctuate our routine. Similarly, cars we share the road with, and silent strangers who end up being partners at the boarding gate. Much has been made of the decline of community in recent years, yet here is a quiet and committed community side by side. For some the anonymous community can transform into familiar friendships that help us pass the time. Folk to play cards with on the train, or to carpool. Long-term co-commuters can develop lengthy relationships that can dwarf many of our other connections in terms of loyalty and duration. Other pleasures of travel can counterintuitively be the restfulness of motion. Even if we do not know or recognise our community it is comforting that they are likely engaged in the same activities, dozing, listening, reading, as they pass us like ‘bit-part’ actors in a long-standing show. Some will become regulars, very few will ever have spoken lines.
Perhaps the rhythm of our business travel corresponds with alternating thought patterns. At least I have noticed that as I depart my home, family and domestic life are prominent in my thinking. As I get closer to work, I note my thoughts have taken on this same proximity. I am considering my itinerary and the tasks ahead. In this sense the commute is a ritual where we can reckon with personal affairs and temper our minds for the business that awaits us. How might this manifest in the super-commuter? What might this be like for the hordes of Lebanese workers who regularly depart from the Beirut-Rafic Hariri airport to various Gulf States, for days or weeks at a time? The habits of commuters are well enough known. The strategies of how to streamline the journey, which shortcut works on a particular day, which train carriage enables you to alight nearest to your transfer. But less is known of the thoughts and feelings of the commute; the affective commute. What of the pleasure of the journey home, anticipating reuniting with loved ones and friends? Each passage need not be characterised as mundane, but a potent emotive landscape ready to unfold. The commute is a peculiar partnership, somewhat contractual, a promise. A promise of return.
Halley’s comet is promised to return to us in 2061, completing a journey comparable to a long and full human life. It is a lifetime spent travelling. Estimates suggest that the comet has been on this commute for 16,000 years. Over time comets slowly dissipate, and Halley’s comet may lose more than a metre of mass off its nucleus on each cycle. Yet at over five miles wide such material attrition does not raise the issue of retirement any time soon. It is also worth reflecting that the comet is parochial in contrast to many of its peers. Legion of comets are on relays thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of years long. Halley’s comet, our comet, is thus peculiarly human in scale.
The scholar and author Loren Eiseley fashions an evocative insight into Halley’s comet crafted from his own childhood encounter, but expanded to envelope all of human history. As a young child in 1910 he witnessed the comet and his father asked of him, at just three years of age, if he would try to grow to be an old man and view the comet on its return. The burden of this promise, to assail the vast contingencies of life, was to stalk Eiseley through adulthood. To assuage the vertigo of such a request, he casts his mind back further, thinking of all the history the comet has witnessed. We can do the same and think of how quite recently in the 17th century Edmund Halley calculated its orbit and predicted its return and so gave the comet its present name. Prior to this, comets were considered one-way travellers, not returnees. Back further still the comet has been cited in all manner of historic moments from the defeat of Attila the Hun in 451, to the birth of Christ. It is reproduced in the Bayeux Tapestry having been considered a bad omen, portending disaster in England of 1066. It is recorded by Chinese Astronomers in 12 BCE in the Book of Han, and it certainly visited the skies above Neolithic settlements for generations.
What then would the longest of travellers say about us over the years? The comet, has witnessed so much of the human story, more than we can grasp. Yet like the super-commuter it too has been elsewhere and absent, pushing onward and outward in order to return. Perhaps in reflecting on the comet we can distinguish an aspiration in our own workaday travel. To ensure that it is not simply a bounding between two separated poles, but a flow where the interstices similarly become significant and part of the terrain. If we choose to travel, then let us choose to make it meaningful.
In the coming months we will scratch away at the opaque practices of the super-commuter learning more about not just the pathways chosen, but the travellers too. We shall be challenging the stereotypes of straphangers, bottlenecks, and flight delays to shine a light on the overlooked nomads of contemporary business travel. Addressing both the techniques and philosophies of accidental tourists and the unfamiliar locales that make up their days.
Eiseley, Loren. 1970. The Invisible Pyramid. New York: Scribner.
Illing, Sean. 2019 ‘Bullshit Jobs: why they exist and why you might have one’, Vox. November 9. Can be found at https://www.vox.com/2018/5/8/17308744/bullshit-jobs-book-david-graeber-occupy-wall-street-karl-marx
Paumgarten, Nick. 2007. ‘There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter’, The New Yorker. April 16. Can be found at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/16/there-and-back-again
The Lowry 2022, ‘LS Lowry’s work: One of Britain’s most recognisable painters’
About Paul O’Connor - Writer
Paul O’Connor lectures in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Exeter, and is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He is author of the books Islam in Hong Kong (2012) and Skateboarding and Religion (2020).
About Thanh Hung Trinh – Artist
Thanh Hung Trinh was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and at age three left the country as part of the boat person exodus. Thanh settled in Switzerland where he studied fine arts and launched a career in graphic, product and industrial design. He has worked with some of Switzerland's most prestigious design agencies, was a co-founder of the cult classic bag brand, Crafted Goods, and is a co-founder of Émigré where he currently serves as the Head of Design.