The lasting memory of my daily commute is the numb expression of a woman who sat across from me one evening a few years ago, knee-to-knee, because the cramped train cars were apparently built in an era when Americans were half their current size. She withdrew one small bottle of champagne from her bag and downed it. Then another. I don’t think she was celebrating.
Each day, before the pandemic, I accepted my commute into Manhattan from suburban New Jersey as deserved punishment for certain life decisions that have resulted in my earning less money than I might have.
I would fast-walk with fellow suburbanites to the train station, then climb aboard a packed car staffed by conductors — some friendly, many gruff — who’d been paid so little heed that no one had apparently bothered to update their uniforms over the past half century or so.
When the train was late or cancelled, which was often, a collective gasp would roll across the platform, then a flurry of phone calls and emails to apologise and reschedule meetings and, of course, curse New Jersey Transit.
At times, I endeavoured to use the ride constructively by reading all those Russian novels I’d neglected or even studying the Torah. It didn’t take. Instead, I would consume too much sports news or gaze out the window into the Meadowlands marshes, wondering what it must have been like for those poor souls the mafia disposed of there.
When the train would at last crawl into the bowels of Penn Station, the other commuters and I would enter the city as if climbing up through a giant public restroom, passing slumped bodies of the homeless along the way. Were they dead or just sleeping, I wondered. Did anyone care?
Every commuter has their lament. What is different now is the wider circumstance. For the longest time, commuters have schlepped into the office because they had no choice. The pandemic, at least in New York City, may change that.
Manhattan’s developers and politicians are desperate for workers to return to the office to protect the value of all those towers, and the tax revenues and smaller businesses associated with them. So far, only about 17 per cent of New York City workers have done so, according to Kastle Systems, the office security company. This, in spite of the fact that vaccination rates are up, Covid-19 infections are dwindling and the city is reopening at full throttle.
Nervous building owners are responding by rolling out more of the amenities popularised in recent years by tech companies such as Google and Facebook. It has become conventional wisdom in the property industry that a 25-year-old software engineer will not set foot in an office unless they are massaged each day like a Kobe cow and given access to cold-brewed coffee, outdoor space and enriching activities planned by a concierge.
All that is fine. But it overlooks the many other workers who, I suspect, care little about free candy or a ping-pong table at the office. For them — and me — the great disincentive to returning to the office is the commute.
It loomed larger when I discovered, mid-pandemic, how productive I could be working from home, and even more so when my son, 11, told me that he did not feel he really knew me when I was rushing to and from the train each day. Time, once sacrificed to New Jersey Transit, is the amenity I desire.
That is not to say that I wish to abandon the city. On a recent visit, I felt the stimulation of interesting people and adult company, and the casual sensuality of sidewalk life that does not exist in suburbs devoted to child-rearing. I missed it.
I suspect part of the reason we have so allowed our transit infrastructure to decay is that most developers and top executives are not of the commuting class. They may understand the problem at a macro level but will never know the despair of the Port Authority bus terminal.
Fixing the commute is more difficult and expensive than jazzing up an office. Any day now, the Biden administration is expected to approve a long-delayed project to dig train tunnels beneath the Hudson River to New Jersey to ease congestion. The current tunnels are 110 years old and were damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, some New Yorkers are hoping Governor Andrew Cuomo will survive mounting scandals — if only to see his planned renovation of Penn Station become reality.
These are overdue patches on an overburdened system. But why not think bigger, as my children and I did on a recent evening. How about train cars that offer all-you-can-eat sushi on rotating conveyor belts, or are fitted with Peloton bikes? How about restoring the bar car, but updated by someone like restaurateur Danny Meyer?
It sounds fanciful. But in this era New Yorkers have conjured the ingenuity to build impossibly tall, thin apartment towers on Billionaires’ Row, overlooking Central Park, largely to serve as safety deposit boxes for foreign wealth. They built an entire luxury neighbourhood, Hudson Yards, atop a platform spanning rusty train storage.
Soon the work-from-home movement may be crushed or co-opted, as most revolutions are. But for now, commuters have the power to demand change. They should use it.
Joshua Chaffin is the FT’s New York correspondent. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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