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road sage

There is no revelation more startling than the realization that you miss something you hate. The burden you wished to be free of becomes a lost love. For instance, I miss in-person Christmas parties, which is ironic as my Christmas party routine is “Arrive. Wait to leave. Leave.” This past December, however, Christmas parties were on Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

My own online office party was a festive affair with real-time small-talk with seventy people at once. I learned that in order to sneak away from an online party you have to type, “Bye everyone! Merry Christmas!” This was new. I would never leave an in-person Christmas party by demanding the attention of all gathered and then shouting “Good-bye Everyone!! Merry Christmas!”” before I threw on my coat and exited.

Yet this was a minor epiphany compared to the single most remarkable discovery of 2020: people miss commuting. It came up repeatedly. It was the topic of conversation at my office party.

“I miss falling asleep on the bus,” someone said.

“I miss being alone in my car,” said another.

This recollection was greeted with a collective, wistful Microsoft Teams sigh.

Such talk would have been unthinkable in 2019. Heretical. Of course, many people are still commuting. They are essential workers and those who must be on the work site. Their commutes continue under gruelling pressure.

But those white collar workers who can stay home – they miss their commutes? Incomprehensible. To miss traffic and frustration and wasted hours never reclaimed? To miss the expense? To miss road rage and the uneasy feeling of life seeping away drip by drip? To miss the knowledge that we car-clad lemmings were contributing to climate crisis?

Yes. We miss those commutes.

We miss those miserably wonderful daily migrations more than we can express.

This is music to my car-loving ears.

Not because I pine for exhaust fumes and traffic-induced existential dread, but because it demonstrates the powerful need – one we, as a society, undervalue – of movement. We human beings need travel. We need the mental release that comes from going from Point A to Point B, whether by foot, bicycle, bus, train, subway, car or plane. “People,” as Montreal-bred popstar Gino Vannelli put it, “Gotta Move.”

That we enjoy our commutes is our collective dirty little secret. Publicly, we decry them. For instance, a recent poll by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found that respondents cited not commuting as something for which they were grateful. Fully a third of those 18-44 were happy to be working at home. The study also found that those surveyed plan to eat better, exercise more and lose weight, so essentially the usual New Year’s self-delusion. I take it with some skepticism.

There were those at my office Christmas party who recalled travelling two or three hours each way. One person was legendary for arriving on campus earlier than anyone else, sometimes before it had even opened. “I was just trying to beat traffic,” he explained. In “Requiem for a Super Commuter” CityLab editor David Dudley wrote, “The commute, even when awful – perhaps especially when awful – ennobled the whole enterprise of employment. To be immersed in a diverse sea of humanity engaged in a common pursuit feels utterly alien here in splintered and self-contained 2020.”

Commuting provides a psychological barrier between work and play. When I started freelance writing, I had a pretend commute every morning. I left the apartment, bought a newspaper and read it while drinking a coffee. Then I went home and started the workday. Today, there are plenty of people enjoying so-called fake commutes. There are no statistics, but it’s likely that most of these are by bicycle or on foot.

Of course, this reminiscence only goes so far. No one is willingly getting on a plague cart (bus or subway) these days. Likewise for car commutes. There is something obvious about telling your family, “I’m going for a drive” and reappearing four hours later.

For many people, pre-COVID-19 commuting was the only time they had to themselves. Thanks to the march of technology the world becomes more connected (read: enchained) each day. When you are in the car, or on the bus, or on your bike, you can still say, “Can’t talk now.” You need to pay attention, after all. This solitude, more than anything else, is what we miss about our commutes.

What we wouldn’t give for one carefree maskless trip on a crowded streetcar or forty-minutes of gridlock punctuated by an office of real live coworkers to gossip with? For some semblance of the dreaded normalcy that we used to complain about at office Christmas parties? It’s true, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Even if that “it” is something you really, really claim to hate, like your daily commute.

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