With the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in England probably two weeks away, the prospect of returning to offices means the revival of the daily commute.
In a push to bring back more people to town and city centres to boost the urban economy, a group of 50 business leaders, including the Canary Wharf executive chair, Sir George Iacobescu, the bosses of Heathrow and Gatwick airports, the Capita chief executive, Jon Lewis, and the BT chief executive, Philip Jansen, are calling for the government to encourage a return to the office.
The government has already attempted to cajole workers back to the office once before, before Covid cases rose again last September. While some companies, notably banks, have summoned their staff to return to HQ, others have indicated that either remote working, or a hybrid system, is here to stay. This has implications for Britain’s previously hard-worked transport networks.
Official figures from the Department for Transport show a gradual rise in recent months of public transport use across the country, with train passengers surpassing half of pre-pandemic levels. However, figures for London underground (where 40-50% of passengers have returned) suggest leisure trips have sprung back more quickly than journeys to work.
But what do commuters think? Despite the introduction of flexible tickets – in effect a part-time season ticket – the government is not anticipating a full-blown return to workplaces. We asked readers to tell us how they feel about heading back to the office.
‘I used to spend just under £5,000 a year, and never got a seat’
Fatma Mehmet, a 39-year-old manager working for a local authority, commuted from Hertfordshire to London for work for more than 15 years. “I was clocking up 60 miles a day, five days a week,” she says.
“The time you waste, commuting 10 [journeys] a week – you’ll never get it back. Since I started working from home 15 months ago, I’ve been able to invest this time into work, relationships and hobbies. I’m more productive at home, less distracted and feel well rested each day. I feel less anxious and let down by the constant disruptions I used to endure with my commute.”
Mehmet also does not miss forking out thousands of pounds a year for her train fare on the Great Northern line. “I used to spend just under £5,000 a year, and have never got a seat, so you wonder what you’re paying for. The trains were delayed at least once a week, it all seems completely unfair now and a stress I do not need in my life.
“Flexible tickets aren’t necessarily as flexible and helpful as the train companies say they are, and the thought of commuting again fills me with fear and dread. Thankfully, my employers have been fantastic and allow a flexible hybrid model, and in future, I’d probably like to go in one day a week, at most, just for my mental health and work friendships.
“But if I was forced to return to the office five days a week I would consider leaving my job.”
‘Once it’s safe I want to commute again, I cannot wait’
As much as Mehmet cannot bear the prospect of boarding a train to work again, Owen Fraser, 23, from Aberdeen, is immensely looking forward to it.
“I used to think my commute was awkward, though I now realise I was complaining about nothing. Remote working was bad for my mental health and I’m going to be a lot more grateful for a commute that allows me to properly mentally adjust to the working day,” he says.
The university student, who deferred for a year to do a work placement, used to commute for up to an hour and a half on buses into the city centre before lockdown forced him to work from home.
“The commute gave me the opportunity to catch up with the day’s events on, say, Radio 4. On my way home, I used to stop off on my local high street, to meet some friends or visit my favourite shops. Some of these, including my local John Lewis, have closed down now, and I’m concerned more will follow due to the rise in remote working and the aggressive promotion of tech giants and many apps as a result.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m worried as heck about catching Covid on public transport. But once it’s safe I want to commute again, I cannot wait.”
‘There is now no social distancing on buses’
The prospect of catching the virus on a cramped bus is what has put Alex, 35, an IT test engineer from Manchester, off using public transport to get to work.
“There is now no social distancing on buses and rarely anyone wears a mask properly. On top of that, when the weather is bad all the windows are closed, so there’s no ventilation and fresh air.
“I had whooping cough a few years ago, and the only place I can think I could have caught it at the time is on the bus, where I was packed in tightly with people who were coughing and ill. The pandemic has made me realise what germ-buckets buses are. With mask wearing not enforced in the slightest, I just don’t feel comfortable taking a bus or tram these days.”
Alex is still working from home but will have to go back in from October. “My office is piloting a hybrid scheme, 60% remote working and 40% office. I’ll be going in two days a week.
“I’m a 20-minute walk or a 10-minute car ride away from the office, and I may get a taxi each time, which would cost me about £15 a day. It wouldn’t be a permanent solution but with cases likely to go up again in autumn and winter, I’m in theory prepared to pay that to be safer.
“I would love to cycle to work but, given the lack of proper dedicated cycle lanes, I don’t feel safe doing that either. I have so many friends who have had accidents while cycling on the roads, and near misses due to inconsiderate drivers, which terrifies me.”
‘I’m worried about the cost of even occasional commuting’
Stephen, 50, a product manager from near Cambridge, has been commuting to central London for the past two years.
“When I first started working in London, the commute was hard but it was exciting to be working in the capital, to have an endless variety of lunch options, and to feel connected to the city. I even believed that I would spend my train journeys reading or watching TV.
“The truth is, though, that I was leaving the house shortly after 6am each morning and having to dash out of the office at 4.30pm to get home just in time to put my young children to bed after everyone but me had eaten dinner together.
“My wife was left to do all the school runs, and frantically hurried home from her own job some 15 miles away. It was very tough for her.
“I was exhausted, only eating with my family at the weekends and paying around £5,500 for the privilege. In retrospect, the season ticket was an expense I could barely cover and I certainly couldn’t afford adding underground travel – meaning 25 minutes’ fast walk each way and even more time pressure.
“Apart from the stress of commuting, which isn’t talked about enough, there were all the times the trains were cancelled entirely, or when a whole train was unceremoniously dumped on to a rural station because it wasn’t going any further.”
The father of two had never been a fan of remote working but cannot imagine going back to his old life.
“Very few people I’ve spoken to are going back in full-time. Going in just two days per week would cost almost the same over the year, in terms of regular peak-time returns, so I’m worried about the cost of even occasional commuting.
“When I return to some kind of presence in the office, it’ll be one day a week.”