From the perils of crush loading on the Tokyo metro to road rage in the United States, ‘Rush Hour: How 500 million commuters survive the daily journey to work’ by Iain Gately examines the past, present and future of travelling to and from work. Commuting is an activity which takes up a significant part of everyday life for people across the world. This book outlines how it has developed and, in an era of advanced communication methods, why we still do it.
I had never heard of ‘Rush Hour’ until I noticed a copy on the new arrivals shelf at the library when I was waiting in a queue to collect another book I had reserved. Even though I normally like to read books which make me less aware of my surroundings, it seemed appropriate to read ‘Rush Hour’ during my own commute to and from work by train which is when I do the majority of my reading anyway (approximately one hour and twenty minutes each way on a good day). Although the time I spend travelling is a borderline definition of extreme commuting, this book features many journeys which are far longer and unconventional than the one I undertake.
‘Rush Hour’ is a sweeping social history of transport and how its usage has evolved alongside other lifestyle changes in modern society. Gately sometimes stretches the definition of commuter to mean a general traveller for the purpose of explaining some of these developments. Although predominantly focused on commuting in Britain and the United States, Gately also outlines how commuting has developed in other parts of the world such as the Soviet Union and China where freedom of movement has been much more limited. Next time your train is delayed or you are stuck in a traffic jam, spare a thought for those commuting on the Mumbai Suburban Railway where an average of ten people die every day due to extreme crowding.
For me, the most interesting and thought-provoking aspects of the book are the chapters exploring the psychology of human behaviour whilst commuting on different methods of transport. For example, why is it that when we are on crowded trains, we freeze and don’t make eye contact with other passengers but when we are alone in our cars, we are often prone to road rage towards other drivers? However, despite the dangers and frustrations, Gately argues that commuting is ultimately a positive aspect of modern life. Although I was very sceptical at first, he makes a reasonably convincing case in favour of the daily grind and why we put up with it. The journey itself allows us time to separate our “home” and “work” selves, and as we are still hunter-gatherers by instinct, perhaps this is also why working from home hasn’t really taken off despite the available technology for many office jobs.
‘Rush Hour’ is an engaging and entertaining read about the perils and the somewhat dubious joys of travelling to work. Highly recommended for commuters everywhere.