December 1, 2002

Rush hour grind symbolises a triumph for non-thinking

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The very idea of people stuck in self-contained metal capsules with radios blaring and tempers flaring will appear as preposterous to the next generation as treating headaches with leeches does to us.

The daily scene of hundreds of thousands of individuals trooping from one place (home) to another place (the office), only to reverse the procedure in the evening, will appear like a backward religious ritual.

Indeed, the rush-hour grind makes a mockery of the notion that we are the most intelligent animals on the planet. Gridlock is the ultimate victory for non-thinking.

If you had told Victorian utopians in 1895 that all the great “convenience” innovations of the coming 20th century would culminate in traffic jams in the 21st century, they would have split their sides.

Let’s think about it. The car, the office, the suburb were all supposed to have been created for our convenience. Yet they combine to make our daily lives a misery. Commuting wastes time, energy and resources. One building — the home — is empty all day; another — the office — stands empty all night. This is ludicrous.

The great con is that humans cannot envisage an alternative to spending billions of euro on roads that will be packed to capacity at peak-time and empty most of the rest of the day.

The sheer waste in terms of construction spending is enormous. Think about the enormous construction overlap that is needed to house people twice: during the night at home and during the day in the office.

We have constructed a status quo where we build twice what we need, using twice the resources and creating enormous waste in the process, which we then ship on clogged roads to enormous landfills.

In addition, we commute on packed roads because everyone else does. When I hear people complaining about it taking 45 minutes to get onto the Naas Road from Clondalkin, my reaction is: ‘Why do it?’ What strange master governs our lives to such an extent that we regard it as normal to endure this carry-on?

Last week’s spatial strategy reveals that our government is also afraid to think about the future and is trapped in the feeble acceptance of commuting.

The strategy is based on an extension of the proposition that commuting is natural. Granted, when the strategy is implemented, the commute may well be to a different place — one of the so-called gateways or the twilight zone that is the Mullingar-Athlone-Tullamore triangle — but the point is exactly the same.

The spatial strategy is yet another victory for non-thinking. We are running our lives without questioning the system, and because questioning the system is alien, we regard progress as something that makes the present setup work better.

When we think about it, the compulsion to congregate together, most of the time idly, in a partitioned room, is like willingly going to prison. For ten hours a day, most of us live by a set of rules we would never tolerate outside an office. We make alliances and enemies, play politics and kiss ass, in a manner that is totally alien to us in the rest of our dealing with humanity.

We bully and we tolerate bullies. Worse still, we cravenly side with that most odious of creatures, the bullying boss. And we hate ourselves for it. How many times have we had conversations with friends who justify their daily grind to the office on the basis that “it pays the mortgage”?

This lack of hard thinking extends to the structure of companies themselves. In most companies, huge effort is put into fire-fighting, making sure that something that has gone wrong gets fixed. Yet very few companies or individuals try to re-invent themselves or the rules.

Thus there is, typically, a sameness about the experience for both clients and employees. The spatial strategy also reveals that departmental officials base their 50-year projection on the attachment to the car, the commute and the apparent inevitability of the fact that most of people’s days will involve getting up, going out and going somewhere else.

But this ritual nonsense is unlikely to last. In the future, the telecom revolution is likely to make a mockery of the commute. Just because telecom share prices have fallen dramatically does not mean that the communication revolution is over — far from it. Faxes, e-mails, mobiles and modems are here to stay.

Working in a large conglomerate that neither gives job security nor guarantees a decent retirement pension, looks quite unattractive. Particularly as almost all the statutory reductions in working hours in recent years have been clawed back by a massive increase in commuting time.

Although it now sounds very late 1990s, working from home is becoming more and more common. Ironically, just when our government has come out with its great spatial strategy, people in the rest of Western Europe are already electing to move away from the cities.

Most large European cities have stopped growing at breakneck speed and the gradual evolutionary process of de-urbanisation is underway. The same is the case for many traditional US cities. Ireland, and Dublin in particular, displays urban characteristics more common with developing countries than developed. This will change as people realise that the unpleasantness of urban life is not something one has to put up with.

It is not utopian to forecast that the home will change dramatically. Today, many homes serve as little more than dormitories, where the commuter/worker crashes out after 12 hours on the go.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the home was a place of rest and work for most people, particularly tradesmen. The same will apply in the future. Home-offices, although rather awkward places at the moment, will become as normal as kitchens when people turn their back on the silly idea of commuting. Companies are likely to embrace this movement away from the centres of cities — already we see the moves to greenfield sites around the suburbs. This momentum, which is already totally normal on the continent, will accelerate here.

The major problem for the spatial strategy is that if the gateway towns become as choked as Dublin, they too will be ignored. Ultimately, human intelligence will out, and more and more people will begin to regard the commute as bizarre as women not having the vote. This will herald all sorts of cultural revolutions, including the beginning of the end for drive-time radio presenters.