“Time is but the stream I go fishing in,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Apparently the guy didn’t commute. For the 125 million Americans who do, time is less an amiable stream than a daily tsunami threatening to overtake us as we hustle to work. The journey has become so fraught that nearly one in eight Americans begins it before 6 a.m. Which is why the electronic information boards at my commuter train station are such a comfort. Commuters require a predictable diet of information: What time is it? Did I miss the train? When’s the next one? On these matters, the boards are mute. Instead, they provide a single data point: today’s date, a rather leisurely time frame if you’re hoping to catch the 7:12. To some, this information may seem useless, but I choose to believe the intent is philosophical: “Time is but a stream. Go fish.”
Like all social arrangements, commuting changes. As Alan Ehrenhalt wrote last week in The New Republic, the “massive outward migration of the affluent” from U.S. cities is now ending. Those who once fled to the suburbs for green lawns and white fences are slowly returning to the cities for “new versions of community and sociability.” In New York's financial district, homesteading has doubled since 9/11. The new urbanites live close to jobs and culture, create less pollution and consume less energy than suburban colleagues. It’s an appealing vision, inducing idle (and likely unaffordable) thoughts of migrating back downtown myself someday. My current commute, however, isn’t so taxing that it will factor into the decision. Believe it or not, I get to the office on the same date I leave home.