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Office Freedom
Office Freedom
  • 3 Minute Read
  • 26th February 2008

Commuting: The Ferocity and the Fun

ON Jan. 2, commuters in and around New York City woke up and celebrated the new year by going back to work. On that day and every workday since, I have been commuting with them, travelling in and out of the city to write an online series called Next Stop for The New York Times about how people get to their jobs and what they think of the ritual they go through twice a day.

I have been on Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Rail Road, subways, buses, a tram and a ferry. What I’ve observed so far has reinforced some hard truths about commuting. For many people, it is the bane of their existence. For others, it’s a trial worth bearing to be near their family, to live in a place they can afford or to get to the job they love.

In the more unusual cases, commuting provides downtime and an opportunity for camaraderie. The daily trek requires weighing priorities: convenience, speed, proximity and, of course, money. A small investment ($2) buys you a hard seat on the subway or a pole to hang on to. A little more money ($5) secures you an express bus like the X68 to Floral Park, with stunning views from the Queensboro Bridge. An even larger payment ($15) lands you a cushy chair on a Hudson River ferry with a balcony, strolling room and free morning coffee.The subway is the most democratic option. The same $2 will carry any rider from the high-priced real estate of Manhattan to the more affordable outer reaches of the city. As a result, you can see trains gentrifying in the same way real estate does; just ride the G train from its Brooklyn terminus, at Smith and Ninth Streets in Carroll Gardens, to Long Island City, Queens, to see how the passengers mirror the changing neighbourhoods.

Most democratic does not mean most popular, however, and the unhappiest travellers I found were on the subway. Worn out by drudgery, angered by slow service, they were the most vocal and the least satisfied, and that makes sense. Subway commuters rely on these trains for their day-to-day needs the way suburbanites rely on cars: to take the kids to after-school activities, to see the doctor, to go out at night. For them, the subway is not just a way to get to work, it’s a way to get everywhere. Despite their deep wells of anger, subway riders were generally the most reticent and the most difficult to engage. In a city of ubiquitous crowds, their commute remains a bastion of anonymity. It inspires (and requires) deliberately ignoring other people’s presence, an oblivion that goes beyond just avoiding their eyes or pretending to be absorbed by the grammatical errors of the MTA’s “Subtalk” ads. These passengers are used to crowded spaces, and they create personal cocoons.

Think about it: How often have you seen people clipping their nails as if they were in their own bathrooms? Other types of commuters have the opposite experiences. A group of Haverstraw residents who take the New York Water Taxi to Wall Street have become fast friends — they even hold onboard happy hours on Friday evenings, taking turns bringing food and drinks. Similarly, the bar car on the Metro-North New Haven line, the tram from Roosevelt Island and even the X68 express bus to Floral Park, Queens, have all sparked real friendships, a benefit that helps to transform the daily trek from something that must be endured to something that can be enjoyed. I will continue commuting and posting articles for the next week.

From my experience so far, it seems that people choose a commute based on a few not-so-simple factors: where they want to live and where they can afford to live, and what they are willing to put up with to get there. But no matter how they decide or how much they spend, they all end up with stories to tell.

Susan Stava for The New York Times.