Commute comes from the Latin word commutare, which means “to change.” Dating back to the 15th century, the word was often used to describe monetary exchange or physical alteration, such as the action of converting foreign currency to domestic. The 1660s saw a dramatic increase in the usage of the word, its most notable appearance occuring in a 1669 publication entitled Treatise of the Scurvy; “The feavers and scurvy do commute and complicate,” it reads, utilizing the word as a synonym for change or morph—a reference to the transmuting nature of the disease. Twenty years later, the word had lost but all of its traction. 1848 saw the induction of the “commutation ticket,” a reusable railroad pass that remained valid for a set amount of time. The term is used repeatedly in the “Informal Passenger Complaints” section of the Senate and Assembly Records Journal from 1915. “Salt Lake Railroad Company, Los Angeles, requested authority to make a refund in connection with a commutation ticket which was not used in its entirety during the month of February for the reason that trains were not running on account of washouts and high water,” reads one of the listings. Here, the base word “commute” is used to insinuate monetary conversion (alluding to the exchange of cash for a ticket), thus explaining the requested refund. Though the word “commuter” as we know it did not appear until the 1950s, we can imagine the regular user of the commutation ticket to be a kind of prefiguration of the contemporary work-traveler.
The concept of the “commuter” arose with the growth of American suburbs, a development which made the daily commute necessary for many middle-class professionals. As families moved their homes to the more comfortable, more affordable suburbs, their city jobs became progressively distant, and so did the forty-minute drive or Metro ride become expected and fundamental parts of their daily lives. Today, the word commute is pretty exclusively used in reference to work; that is, the common phrase “my daily commute” insinuates a regular job, tying to it an irrevocable sense of commitment, responsibility, and professionalism. In recent years, a kind of commuter culture has arisen, exemplified in the popular activities of public transportation passengers: scrolling through phones, listening to music or podcasts on nearly-microscopic headphones, reading the newspaper (or, more conceivably, the Kindle). However, while the midcentury commute provided an unavoidable period of solitude (the time spent alone in one’s car, listening to the radio or daydreaming with the window down), the contemporary commute can no longer serve the dual function of escapism, due to the ever-presence of our phones, our overly-accessible email, our advanced Bluetooth car technology. The daily commute, though transient by definition, cannot ever again be ethereal, for it seems that it is becoming more and more a part of our work.
Commuting is now an expected part of modern day employment, and an increasingly dreaded one, at that. “Bay Area Workers Have 3rd Longest Commute in U.S.,” reads a dismal September 18th headline from the Bay Area’s local news station. While commuting was once a symbol of the adaptable modern lifestyle—one in which professional success was not limited by distance, family, or transportation—a lengthy commute is now a source of frustration, a “waste of time,” as one might put it. Now, more and more efforts are being made to eliminate time-consuming commutes. Freelancing, working from home, and remote employment are increasingly popular options for people who want to avoid the hour-long train ride or highway traffic.
As evidenced by Berlin’s massive transit system, commuting, whether advantageous or not, is an essential part of Germany’s urban working life. And, for many Berliners dealing with the effects of gentrification—which, according to Andrej Holm, is continuously forcing the non-rich out of inner-city neighborhoods—commuting is becoming increasingly necessary to maintain jobs. As places with high-employment opportunities (such as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, centers of business, culture, and tourism) become more and more expensive to live in, the people that actually work in those communities are being displaced, forced to commute forty-five minutes to an hour from their more affordable outer-city or suburban neighborhoods of residence. This isn’t even to mention the aforementioned freelancers, who, compelled to find cool and comfortable local spaces to do their work, gravitate towards places like Factory and other glossy co-working cafes, etc.—businesses which push the minority classes out by drawing the middle-class creatives in, thus further complicating the notion of commuting.
It’s clear that the daily commute isn’t going away anytime soon, despite workers’ best efforts to avoid it. As long as transportation technology is advancing, the workforce is expanding, and time management is stipulating, the daily commute is bound to become just another hour of the work-day, that is, a daily gesture that’s no longer dedicated to travel, opportunity, or leisure, but to labor.
Belden, Joe. “Census: Bay Area workers have 3rd longest commute in U.S,” Kron 4 (Sept 18,
Holm, Andrej. “Berlin’s Gentrification Mainstream” (2013).
Lind, James. A Treatise on the Scurvy (1669) https://books.google.de/books.
Merriam Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Commutation Ticket,” accessed December 12, 2018.
Oxford English Dictionaries, s.v. “Commute,” accessed December 12, 2018.
Senate and Assembly Records Journal, 1915.