Does anyone have anything good to say about commuting?
Media discourse about commuting is overwhelmingly negative. News agencies eagerly report on research that shows associations between commuting and heart disease, diabetes, depression, obesity, even loneliness, and frame this information in dire terms.
Time magazine explains “Why Commuting Sucks the Life out of You.” Men’s Fitness declares, “Long Commutes Can Kill.” The Atlantic concurs: “Your commute is slowly killing you.” CNN describes, more soberly, “Why your commute is bad for you.”
A lot gets lost beneath these generalizations. The actual studies invariably say that, statistically, people with lengthy commutes are more likely to have specific health problems. Personalizing the story, the headlines reduce the nuances to “your commute is killing you.” Such coverage feeds into the larger media drumbeat urging us, often in a language of threat and danger, to make healthier choices. Commuting becomes something to worry about — and considering the greenhouse gases we’re emitting along the way–perhaps something to feel guilty about.
Closer to the ground, the picture looks less tragic. The average commute in the United States is 25.5 minutes, one-way. The average commute to work in Muncie takes 17 minutes — although most city residents have shorter commutes than that: the average figure is inflated by the approximately 750 workers who drive here from Hamilton County each day.
According to StatsIndiana, 6,639 residents of Delaware County commute to another county for work, out of a total resident labor force of 67,238; 10,192 people drive to work here each day from another county. Close to 70 percent of Ball State employees live in Delaware County, according to Ball State’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
The informants in the Everyday Life in Middletown Project typically have very short commutes. Informant 12 walks .6 miles at the end of each day from his teaching office at Ball State to his house in Gatewood. Informant 2 drives 2.5 miles to his office near the Ball State campus.
Interviews with several informants suggest that commuting is a classic tactical activity. Michel de Certeau, the pre-eminent theorist of everyday life, differentiates “tactics”—the small, improvisational, everyday decisions people make in order to make their lives livable—from “strategies”—the larger social forces (work, career, media) that determine and delimit individuals’ freedom. Strategies come from our workplaces, from the media, from society: the injunction to work hard, the rules of the workplace, the media’s incessant guidelines for living. Tactics are how we react to strategies, adapting to them in small, personal, and sometimes unconscious ways in order to cope and to enjoy life.
While commuting is in a sense an individual choice, this choice typically balances a number of complex factors, some of them beyond our control. Within the actual time spent commuting, however, there is tactical space for learning, diversion, daydreaming, reflection, playfulness.
Informant 9 drives “twenty-one or twenty-two minutes” from her Southside home to her work as an education professional. An animal lover, she looks for and wonders about the creatures she typically passes on her morning and afternoon drives. “That’s where that little donkey lives, I wonder where he is?” she muses.
She listens to NPR, but when the stories begin to repeat, switches among the Top 40 stations, searching for a song she can sing along to. It’s a good day if she can find “Come On, Eilene.”
“I love driving in my car, it’s not a problem,” she says. “In the morning, when the sun’s coming up and it’s at a nice angle, I feel pretty upbeat.”
As the week wears on, however, she notices the signs of fatigue in her body as she drives. And a slide-off on a morning of freezing fog several years ago shook her up, leaving its emotional trace for weeks afterwards.
“It was really cold that winter, and the tire tracks in the grass from where I slid off stayed there for a while after that. So everyday I would see it and flash back to that.”
Informant 10 drives ten minutes to his work in a factory to the north of Muncie. He has to stop at six intersections during the drive, so remains focused on his driving, never lapsing into the automatic, distracted consciousness familiar to drivers with longer commutes. As he watches the road, he listens to sermons a friend records for him on CD.
“Either that, or the Fort Wayne station — political talk,” he says. “I figure if you have the time available you should be learning something. I’m an information junkie. I figure the day you don’t learn something should be your last day on earth.”
Informant 12’s ten-minute late-afternoon walk is the shortest commute among the Everyday Life in Middletown collaborators. He likes to use his MP3 player to do experiments in mood-setting for his walk.
“Sometimes I’ll deliberately put on something weird to transform the walk home, to alter the mood, to make the pleasant ten-minute walk a bit eerier,” he says. “Some ambient music with a dark edge. It colors a very familiar walk and alters it in a pleasing way.”
There is great dissonance between such eccentric particularities as Informant 12’s mood music or Informant 9’s donkey musings, the bleak statistical picture painted by social scientific research on commuting, and the even more generalized sensationalism of the news outlets. This disparity vividly supports de Certeau’s arguments about everyday life. Large-scale studies give a panoramic view, akin a view of the street from the 110th floor. Our informants’ accounts, in contrast, bring us down to earth, testifying to the wonderful and irreducible strangeness of everyday life, and the creative ways that people find to live it, moment by moment.
1. Figures are for 2011. U.S. Census Bureau.
2. Local commuting statistics here and below from “Commuting Patterns,” Muncie-Delaware County Economic Development Allaince and “Annual Commuting Trends Profile/Delaware County, Indiana.” StatsIndiana.
3.The relatively large number of people who commute to Delaware County for work rather than living here is a concern for economic development authorities, according to Traci Lutton, program director for the Muncie-Delaware County Economic Development Alliance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that inadequate housing stock and a perceived lack of cultural opportunities discourage professionals from living in Delaware County.