What I miss about commuting

I liked the Mall and the ferry. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

“Overslept, so tired.

If late, get fired.

Why bother? Why the pain?

Just go home, do it again.”

Well now, that’s a cheery, morale-building message, don’t you think?

It’s from a poem plastered on the wall in New York City’s 42nd Street station, which the writer Jerry Useem used to pass during his commute.

He included it in his article in the current issue of The Atlantic, writing about the paradox many former office workers are slow to admit:

  • They don’t miss commuting every day, but

  • They’re surprised to realize that there are things they’ve missed about the commute itself.

His conclusions are mostly about the loss of buffer time and role-switching. But I think there might be something more.

To illustrate, allow me to switch gears for a moment.

I’m reaching back to a study I read a couple years ago about outdoor time, happiness, and mental health. It came from the University of Exeter in England, and was published in Scientific Reports in 2019.

Basically, researchers found that people who spend at least two hours a week outdoors and in nature are much more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.

The study recounted the experiences of 19,806 people. Quick results:

  1. Two hours outside was the minimum. People who spent less time out—say, one hour a week—reported no correlative benefit whatsoever.

  2. But the benefit tapered off after six hours. Once study participants hit that level, they no longer reported any additional increase in health or well-being.

  3. Also, “exposure to nature” was loosely defined: basically green spaces, parks, woodlands, and beaches all counted. This wasn’t about adventures in the mountains; it was about people experiencing nature close to where they lived—within two miles, in most cases.

  4. Oh, one more point: It didn't matter how the time was split up: two hours in a single day, an hour here and an hour there—or I suppose, in theory, exactly 17 minutes and 9 seconds per day.

Back to commuting. Because when I read about the poem on the wall at 42nd Street, and Useem’s description of what it was all like—“the highways and the subways … the crowds and the filth … the bagelwich and the jostled coffee … the traffic tie-up and the terrible screech in the tunnel”—my reaction was: um, why did you commute like that?

There are always options. I’ve got two in particular in mind from my personal experiences over the years—times that I added 15 or 20 minutes to my commute just to make it a lot more pleasurable, or even something I could look forward to:

  • First, when I lived in the District of Columbia, I often added 15 minutes each way, so that instead of getting off at the Metro stop closest to the office, I could walk or ride a Capital Bikeshare bike across the length of the National Mall. (You’d get a perfect view of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, and the Lincoln Memorial.)

  • Second, commuting from my home in New Jersey into NYC, I’d often add 20 minutes—instead of getting off the train at Penn Station in Manhattan, I could instead go to the terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, and take a ferry across the Hudson River for the last leg. (You’d have a perfect view of Manhattan, the World Trade Center [at the time], and the Statue of Liberty.)

See what I mean? I feel like the Mall and the river are roughly lined up with “green spaces, parks, woodlands, and beaches,” even in urban environments. And while I’d never heard of this University of Exeter study at the time, I’d nonetheless managed to work an extra 20 minutes or so of nature into my commute most days.

In fact, it was almost second nature to do so (pun not originally intended, but intentionally retained).

If there’s anything I miss, that’s it. Not so much the commute, but what I tried to make sure I experienced while commuting.

Got advice? A 20-minute nature habit to share? Amazing pictures from the nature experience you had this morning? Share them in the comments.

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