As workforces across the UK are called back to the office by their employers, many will find themselves forced to wake up earlier and get home later – and pay for the privilege. With the gradual return of the daily commute as we exit lockdown restrictions, it’s about time that travel to and from work came up for political critique.
We need to acknowledge that commuting is a problem. Before the pandemic hit, rail passenger satisfaction was at its lowest for over a decade, UK trains were regularly overcrowded across our cities and the number of cancelled or significantly late trains was consistently high. Rubbing salt into the wound, rail fares have continued to increase year after year like clockwork. In January 2018 rail fares across all operators were 20% higher in real terms than they were in January 1995. In March this year, rail fares rose yet again by another 2.6%, leading commuting costs to make further incursions into real incomes.
Commuting costs aren’t just another form of consumption: the price of getting to and from work is what the economist Joseph Stiglitz has called a ‘hidden tax’ on our working lives. It isn’t employment strictly speaking – we are not yet on the job. But it isn’t free time either – we have to get to our work, and we wouldn’t choose to be on that packed train or bus if we had any choice about it.
We can therefore understand commuting as a form of ‘shadow work’ that, while unpaid, is no less arduous and time-consuming. And while it’s a utility for workers (it allows us to get to work and earn a wage), it’s a significant one for employers too: commuting is essential to the success of their business, as it gets their workforce to and from the site of production.
The current policy debate around commuting in the UK misses this fact, remaining preoccupied with issues of public transport ownership, and the scandalous but steady rise in fares. These are both important issues, but they risk passing over the question of who ought to be burdened with the costs of commuting. Our new report at Autonomy shines a light on this debate, arguing that we need more than just a shift in ownership, but also a radical restructuring of the funding model of our commutes.
Taking us for a ride.
Who currently covers the cost of commuting? Of the major stakeholders (commuters, employers and the state), at the moment it’s workers themselves who are asked to cough up the most. Commuters pay the fares (which make up just over half of rail and bus industry incomes) and are the ones who end up saddled with the health costs of stressful, overcrowded transport.
Most striking of all, however, is the time burden saddled by commuters. Before Covid-19, the UK commuter spent, on average, 27 days a year commuting – roughly the same amount as their average annual holidays. BAME workers also typically commute for longer than their white counterparts, and women have experienced the sharpest rise in long commutes (more than two hours per day).
After tickets bought by commuters, the state makes up more or less the remainder of rail and bus industry income through grants and subsidies, such as those from Network Rail. Meanwhile, employers – major beneficiaries of commuting – are effectively given a free ride, enjoying the benefits it gives to their businesses without paying a penny for its operation in most cases. This is an unjust distribution of costs and benefits, which requires a shift in policy.
In the age of Covid, where much work can be carried out remotely at least some of the time, and many people have felt the impact on their wallets of not having to commute every day, there needs to be a much stronger justification for employers to force staff to get back on the bus again. We suggest that employers should meet their employees halfway and pay 50% of the commuting fare. This could be in the form of subsidised season tickets, or through a simple, monthly receipts system of reimbursement. The scheme could apply exclusively to environmentally-friendly forms of transport such as buses and trains, in order to encourage commuters out of their cars and on to public transport.
The effects could be huge. For rail commuters, for example, up to £2.8 billion would return to their pockets every year. Many of those who previously avoided looking for jobs that were too far away due to the high cost of commuting would now have new opportunities opened up for them. Employers would be incentivised to allow employees to work from home – or even opt for four-day working weeks for their staff – as this would now be a cost-saving strategy. Finally, if firms across sectors have an interest in cheaper fares for their workforces, this will mean significant pressure – now coming from both commuters and their bosses – on private rail and bus companies to keep prices down; if these services are taken into public ownership, the pressure will then similarly be on public authorities to keep fares low. Commuters can therefore only gain from this new distribution of stakeholders.
The idea of getting half of your fare paid for might sound radical, but employer-subsidised transport is already in place in different forms around the world. In Brazil, companies must pay for commuting costs that rise above 6% of a workers annual salary; in Belgium, 75% of the commute is subsidised by the employer; and in Slovenia an employees entire commute is paid for by their boss. The UK’s commuting policy is so far behind in this respect. Employers might protest at the costs this policy would incur for them, but let’s not forget that these costs are already being lumped on commuters, in a harsh, low-wage labour market.
If we want a more equal social settlement to emerge after the worst of Covid-19’s effects have receded, we need to consider all aspects of working life, from the paid to the unpaid, the visible and the neglected. The experience of remote working and furlough for hundreds of thousands of workers has thrown what we took to be immutable reality into question. This is an opportunity to distribute the ‘hidden tax’ of commuting more evenly amongst those who benefit from it, to effectively forge a commuting contract directly between employer and employee. It’s time to claim our commute.
Will Stronge is the co-director of Autonomy, a think tank focusing on the future of work and economic planning.