Commuting is a problem. Rail passenger satisfaction is at its lowest for over a decade, UK trains are regularly overcrowded across our cities and the number of cancelled or significantly late trains is consistently high. Rubbing salt into the wound, rail fares have been on the increase over the past 10 years, while real wages remain lower than they were before the financial crash of 2008. In January 2018 rail fares across all operators were 20 per cent higher in real terms than they were in January 1995. In January 2019, rail fares rose by another 3.1 per cent, outpacing the 2.6 per cent rise in the average wage of the previous year meaning that commuting costs are continuing to make further incursions into personal incomes. These rises continue year on year, in spite of regular outcry and protest. It’s not just train commutes either: local bus fares in England increased by 71 per cent between March 2005 and March 2018.
The current policy debate around commuting in the UK predominantly revolves around the issue of ownership as well as the scandalous but steady rise in commuting fares that we’ve seen over the past ten years. While this is an essential discussion to be had, the debate has failed to seriously engage with the definition of commuting itself and with the question as to who should justifiably bear the burden of its costs. At Autonomy, we argue that the current situation requires not only a shift in thinking concerning the ownership of commuting infrastructure, but also a radical restructuring of its funding model.
What is commuting? It isn’t employment strictly speaking – as we are not yet at our workplaces, on the job (although many of us do carry out work while on our commute). And yet, it isn’t free time either – after all, we have to get to our work, we wouldn’t choose to be on that packed train or bus if it was up to us. We can recognise that commuting is a utility for workers (it allows us to get to work and earn a wage) but also for employers – for whom our commuting is essential to the success of their business, as it gets their workforce to and from the site of production. Commuting is a process that keeps the economy ticking over.
Who bears the brunt of the cost for this essential activity? First and foremost it is the commuters themselves: they pay the fares (which make up just over half of rail and bus industry incomes), and they are the ones saddled with the health costs of stressful, overcrowded transport. Most striking of all is the time burden that commuters endure: on average the UK commuter spends 27 days a year commuting – roughly the same amount as their average annual holidays. On average, BAME workers commute for longer than their white counterparts and women have experienced the sharp rise in long commutes (more than 2 hours per day) the most. After commuters buy their fares, it is the state that makes up more or less the remainder of rail and bus industry income through grants and subsidies such as those from Network Rail. In contrast, employers – a major beneficiary of commuting – are effectively given a free ride, enjoying the utility of commuting for 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.
We suggest that employers should meet their employees halfway and pay 50 per cent 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 travel such as buses and trains, in order to encourage commuters out of their cars and into public transport.
The effects could be huge. In some parts of the country, workers would receive an immediate income rise of 6 per cent, countering years of dismal wage growth. 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 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, your company must pay for commuting costs that rise above 6 per cent of your annual salary; in Belgium, 75 per cent of your commute is subsidised by your employer; and in Slovenia your entire commute is paid for by your 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 to bake equality into our economy and distribute the ‘hidden tax’ of commuting more evenly amongst those who benefit from it, we need to forge a contractual settlement directly between employer and employee. We need to recognise and remunerate the ‘shadow work’ of our daily travel to and from our jobs: it’s time to claim our commute*.
*In a forthcoming report, we at Autonomy detail how this policy might work, why it is so urgent and who would benefit from a more equal sharing of the costs of commuting.
– Will Stronge is Co-Director of Autonomy. The essay above is taken from The New Economy Starter Pack: a FREE ebook, developed in conjunction with Autonomy, outlining the new and transformative economic agenda of the left. Read by clicking below or here.
See also: The Shorter Working Week[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Neoliberalism is dying, but its replacement is not yet born. The direction of politics over the coming years is not certain, and the left will have to win not only the political fight, but also the battle of ideas.
In this special Verso Report, developed in conjunction with Autonomy, some of the most important left-wing economists and policy makers at work today outline the new economic ideas that will shape the direction of the left in the years to come. From Labour’s “ownership agenda”, moving beyond neoliberalism’s fixation on private ownership towards collective ownership of society’s productive assets, and the position of unions in society, to plans to reduce the time we all spend at work, and new ecological imperatives for the entire economy, The New Economy Starter Pack is a vital resource for those who want a wide-ranging introduction to the new and transformative economic agenda of the left.
Contributors include: James Meadway, Kyle Lewis, Alice Martin, Mathew Lawrence, Cat Hobbs, Will Stronge, Dave Ward, Luke Hildyard, Howard Reed, Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Julian Siravo, and Grace Blakeley.