In a world of Zoom meetings, rising emissions and talk of 15-minute cities, the notion that growing numbers of people are leaving the house before 6.30am to commute to work feels like something has gone badly wrong with the dream of a better post-pandemic life.
In 2011, just under 120,000 people were slipping out the door before 6.30am; in 2016, it was 167,000. By 2022, the ranks of the dawn commuter had swollen to close to 205,000, figures released in this week’s tranche of Central Statistics Office data reveal. The numbers leaving between 6:30 and 7am also rose dramatically, from 153,000 in 2011 to 292,000 in 2022.
I’m not actually one of them: my commute starts so early it isn’t captured in the CSO data. Three days a week, I leave the house before 5.45am.
As the world has slowly begun to return to the office, stories of so-called super commuters like me and my fellow bleary-eyed regulars on the 5.55am train have raised a few concerned eyebrows. Media stories feature cautionary tales about people in such haste to leave cities during the pandemic, they didn’t think it through properly. They feature anecdotes about family life eroded, or warnings about a range of health problems, including higher stress, lower wellbeing, depression and elevated cortisol levels.
The other trend running parallel to the rise in long-distance commuting has been the almost overnight normalisation of remote and hybrid working, which wasn’t even a question on the form in 2016
Some of those are valid concerns. But there’s more to those numbers than tales of commuting hell. For many early morning commuters, I suspect it is about more freedom and more choice rather than less.
The other trend running parallel to the rise in long-distance commuting has been the almost overnight normalisation of remote and hybrid working, which wasn’t even a question on the form in 2016. Now one third of the workforce – or nearly 750,000 people – work from home at least part of the week. The numbers working mainly at home rose 173 per cent, to nearly 260,000. Those in the so-called laptop jobs – business, media and public service – which most seamlessly adapted to remote working increased by more than 50 per cent, to just over 119,000 by 2022. Four out of five of them work from home some of the week. But so do two in three people in customer service jobs; over half of them work entirely from home.
Take all these data points together – the rise of the early commuter, the growth in hybrid work, the broadening of the types of roles in which remote working is possible, other data released this week which showed 40,000 fewer daily commuters into Dublin – and it is clear we are experiencing a dramatic shift in the way people can organise their lives.
A survey a few years ago found 45 minutes was the maximum bearable commuting time. But that was based on doing it five days per week. If knowing you can work from home two or three days a week makes a longer journey on the other days more palatable, the whole idea of the commuter belt is suddenly, dramatically expanded. If people don’t have to choose where to live based on where they work, they can choose for other reasons: quality of life, more affordable housing, better choice of schools, access to family or to the outdoors.
If you’d stood in the centre of any market town and uttered the catchphrase of anti-immigrant protesters “Ireland is full”, you’d have been laughed out of it – if only there had been anyone around to hear you
The opening up of new models of working is an opportunity not just for individuals and their families, but for society. The story of Ireland since the Famine has largely been one of a population drain and what Fintan O’Toole has called people urbanising themselves – leaving the towns and villages of rural Ireland for better employment opportunities in Cabra, Kilburn or Canada. Very few came back. Many probably didn’t want to; they weren’t just running towards something, they were running away from the suffocating social strictures of the time.
But despite the rapid social changes of the last couple of decades, up to four years ago if rural Ireland had any kind of concerns about population, it was all about depopulation. If you’d stood in the centre of any market town and uttered the catchphrase of anti-immigrant protesters “Ireland is full”, you’d have been laughed out of it – if only there had been anyone around to hear you.
The reality then, as now, was that Dublin needed fewer people and the rest of Ireland needed more. Dublin was swelling like an abscess, pulling everything in its hinterland towards it, and turning other counties into effectively dormitory communities. It was a virtuous cycle, until it became a vicious one.
But now, partly due to dreadful events of the last few years, the first signs of a rebalancing are under way. The long, slow, bleed from rural Ireland is being stemmed. If we are to make the most of this opportunity to revitalise the secondary cities and towns, money and services must follow. Public transport services need to respond to the reality of why and how people use them. Why are 4 per cent more people now driving to work than in 2016, and 4 per cent fewer commuting by rail?
Rebalancing Ireland is about more than transport. It’s also about the right kind of housing in the right places – in the centre of towns rather than sprawling estates on the outskirts – more school places, better broadband, more local employment, better supports for the independent retailers and restaurants who breathe life into a place. Vibrant towns and cities need strong local Government and imaginative strategies to accommodate the needs of the full diversity of people who live there. Because now they will actually live there.
The rise of the occasional 6.30am commuter could be a sign that we’ve emerged from the pandemic with our priorities entirely askew. But I prefer to think of it as a glimmer of hope that – at last – Ireland is becoming less lopsided.