The pandemic allowed many to import workplace into living space, thereby reducing risk of illness and death. We talk about missing the experience of an office in addition to the other ways we used to socialize. But what about the commute? Some glorify that in-between time as an opportunity to read or “catch up” on phone-based tasks, but, for me, it was nothing more than an exhausting, obligatory, unpaid extension of the workday. The commute isn’t a break, it’s time stolen by the constraints of modern urban capitalism that we’re forced to borrow back only to kill. I made it disappear with podcasts or music, anything that didn’t require much mental effort. The commute isn’t productive time measured by remuneration, nor rest time measured by pleasure, but a liminal time measured only by fatigue. Having three hours a day back to myself has been priceless.
It is unfortunate that the joy of a life without commuting, of reclaiming dead time for rest and leisure and care for ourselves, our home, or other people, might come at the cost of a public good. Half of the CTA’s budget comes from fares, the other from sales and real-estate transfer taxes. CTA experienced an 80 percent drop in ridership in the early months of the pandemic while shopping and home sales declined. Unlike other cities, Chicago never cut its services, and federal stimulus funding (of which CTA received more than $817 million to date) has stemmed the revenue bleed. The CTA won’t be forced to cut routes, increase fares, lay workers off, or suspend capital improvement projects through 2021. Still, the system saw a 57 percent drop in ridership in 2020 and though some of that has ebbed back, there are still less than 500,000 average daily rides today. It was 1.5 million before the pandemic. If most people who used to commute don’t have to again, the long-term health of our public transit, which is essential to at least half a million Chicagoans’ lives and livelihoods every day, could be in jeopardy.