The rise of the 'extreme commuter'


Most people hate commuting, a modern-day necessary evil. So why would anyone choose to build a lengthy commute into their lifestyle, asks Karen Gregor.

Marcus used to live in London, but moved to rural Suffolk to give his children a bucolic upbringing. In doing so, he created a commute of - on a good day - two hours and 45 minutes in one direction. On a bad day (snow on the line, the wrong kind of leaves) it can take him anything up to three and half hours from home to office.

The journey starts off by car - a quick spin through the lanes to the station. He hops on a single-engine train at 05:40 GMT, which rattles to Cambridge carrying exhausted-looking painter-decorators and builders - there are very few suits around at that unearthly hour. At Cambridge a speedy modern train takes him to King's Cross. From there, he has a 25-minute canal-side walk to his office.

Marcus has what he describes as a "portfolio" career and says that the journey - which breaks up into distinct chunks - allows him time to think about different tasks on each leg of the trip. His beautiful garden, his chickens, and the peace and tranquillity that surrounds his home-life contrasts markedly with the noisy urban streetscape that awaits him each day in London.

He enjoys having a foot in each location. The journey, he says, allows him time to make the transition from one to the other.

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Extreme Commuting is broadcast on Friday 27 December at 11:02 GMT on Radio 4.

According to Lizzie Crowley of the Work Foundation, Marcus is officially an "extreme commuter". Anyone whose return journey to work amounts to three hours and over fulfils this criterion. Perhaps Marcus deserves a new term, altogether, such as uber-commuter.

Crowley points out that a recent survey by the recruitment organisation, Randstad, showed that while the recession has led to a drop in the number of people commuting as people lost their jobs - there has been an increase in people travelling more than three hours a day.

The survey, which looked at the commuting patterns of 2,000 workers between 2008 and 2013, found that almost one in 10 respondents were now travelling for that period a day - compared with one in 20 previously.

Hampshire track A two-and-a-half hour journey to Hook in Hampshire for one commuter

"It's difficult to unpick the reasons why this is happening," says Crowley. "You could say it's a response of highly skilled earners to a tougher labour market. They've expanded their job search to areas further from their home."

Another, more reluctant, commuter who may fall into this bracket is James. He travels by car and train from Trowbridge in Wiltshire to Hook in Hampshire each morning - a door-to door journey of around two hours and 30 minutes. He works as a consultant and his main client, who used to be based 10 minutes from his home, moved their head offices to Hampshire.

Instead of relocating - which wouldn't suit family life - he makes the journey almost daily. "If I had a choice," he says, " I'd like to not have such a long commute, but you just have to go where the work is in these tough times. The fact that I have a job is a good thing. I'd rather not do it, but it's required."

While many extreme commuters may find that the travelling time has no adverse impact on their health, Crowley warns of a "potential for extreme stress, chronic fatigue and an increased likelihood of developing indicators that might lead to a heart attack".

Average commutes

Men in their early 40s have the longest commutes in the UK, spending more than 67 minutes on average getting to and from work every day, according to a report published in November by the TUC.

The analysis shows that commute times have started to creep up again after a short fall during the recession. The average daily commute is now nearly five minutes longer than it was a decade ago, with workers spending an extra 4.5 days a year travelling to and from work.

Then there is the impact the commute can have on family life.

Jane and Doug live in the Midlands and have three small children. When Doug was made redundant from a local job he found a new one over two hours' drive away. The commute, as such, wasn't a problem for him but it was proving very disruptive for family life.

Inevitably, Doug would arrive home just as his young brood were in the middle of the crucial bedtime routine, and order would quickly turn to chaos. Between them Jane and Doug decided it might be more sensible for Doug to stay away two nights a week. This he does, and it's working well for the family.

The word "commuter" originates from the early days of train travel in the US. Train fares would be reduced or "commuted" to make travelling to cities from the newly developed suburbs more affordable. And cost, of course, is a major factor for today's commuters.

Commuting late Far fewer workers did long commutes a decade ago

Rob makes a three-hour one-way commute so that he and his wife can be closer to elderly parents. This longer commute is cheaper than the shorter one he previously did from Berkshire to London.

The unexpected upside of this reduced fare on a non-commuter line is matched by fast wi-fi speed. He's productive from the moment he steps on the train - which he views as a mobile office - to the moment he arrives home in the evening. It makes for extremely long days, but weekends are now entirely his own.

Marion makes her five-hour-a-day return commute from Essex to central London by car and tube. The train is prohibitively expensive. She's not the only commuter in her single-parent family, though. Her daughter doesn't travel the same kind of distance but her daily routine involves being dropped at a friend's house, who then takes her to a child-minder, who delivers her to school.

A commuter in the making, perhaps?

On a tablet? Read 10 of the best Magazine stories from 2013.

Are you an extreme commuter? Here is a follow-up article featuring some our readers' epic commutes.

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