City Living

Imagining a new future for the daily commute


For some, life is a constant imbalance of commute and labor, often with no end in sight. Commuting these days is a means to an end and shortening the time it takes, a drive towards optimal productivity. From Elon Musk’s ‘hyperloop’, claiming to carry passengers in 29 minutes from New York to Washington, or closer to home, to CLARA – a plan to connect ‘smart cities’ in Victoria and New South Wales with a high-speed rail; solving the work and commute balance is a source of much debate. What if our daily journeys to work weren’t built around efficiency, but interaction, knowledge sharing, catharsis, and connection? Paul van Herk imagines a fictional city in perpetual motion, where the daily commute is in service to itself. 


The alarm begins to hum softly 12 minutes before I want to wake: this I have come to accept no matter how much I sleep. It’s easy to sleep too much. The alarm sound gradually builds and falls away when I am no longer at risk of lapsing back into drowsiness. Getting ready usually takes seven minutes, eight if I haven’t already pre-selected outfits the night before. This is considered slow, but slowness these days is a matter of taste. Measurements of progress have swung away from optimising every aspect of human life. Looking to minimize time would be considered old fashioned, and ill advised. I leave home and begin the commute.

The sky glows a pale orange behind a copse of trees, the light piercing through the ragged canopy. It is autumn. I lower my still sensitive eyes to the ground. There, the path; dirty, pierced by tufts of grass and well-trodden. I plod clumsily along it, feeling vulnerable like a newborn, but cosy in my hi-vis. A hint of the city hits my ears as a humming background noise, which I find comforting.

I approach the refectories, a haphazard strip of stalls that open onto the path, emanating warmth and puffs of fragrant steam. The proprietors have their own hand signals and patrons too, expressing their needs through gestural interfaces. A low hum of speech echoes and dims that of the city beyond, insulating the more fragile among us. Some places are known to be havens for the grouchy, others cater to those who awake, excited and ready to relate. Today I do not wish to stop and I get a warm pot of batare – a tasty and nutritious stimulant – to go.

I sip it in a mobi-library; a plush linear pavilion with space for a dozen or so people to sit and watch the city go by. There are many thousands of such libraries in this city. This is one of the smallest, a G-class. The mobi-libraries move slowly across neighbourhoods throughout the day, inching along and criss-crossing each other’s paths as people step on and off. Every day they take a different route, like wandering beasts. Some days I meet friends and colleagues in whichever beast best fits between our respective movements. They never take us far.

My Nan used to tell me about the commute in her time, in the old coastal cities. I found it hard to understand: aggressive, competitive, reptilian. Enormous chunks of life were dedicated to physical presence at work, not to mention the repetitive journeys across endless suburbs.

The trips were self-navigated, energy-intensive, dangerous. People would fight with fists and finance to minimise the time it would take them to travel, but would rarely swap out their places of work or homes or committed hours. It makes me think of how water boils, all the discrete particles agitating and colliding and ultimately evaporating in the heat.

I look up when I am done responding to the news and signing petitions. We are passing through one of the main city concourses and it is bustling. The concourse’s population grows and falls over the day, generally with five peaks and five troughs: popularly known as ‘the tides’. Right now, it is ‘high tide’. I read that people spend on average 19 minutes here at a time, but multiple visits per day are common. I step off the mobi-library, which rumbles on.

Nan tried to help me relate to the old way. Collective ritual, she said, was discarded along with organised religion, which was deemed to have no place in an efficient society. It took many years for public acts of ritual to re-emerge, peeled away from old oppressive narratives and attached to new ones that allowed for perpetual movement, change and self-expression.

Most groupings in the concourse are centred around some kind of activity; games, music, role play, politics or a combination. Here strangers and demi-strangers meet, or just watch and regard each other in action. Lots of people lean on or sit in the booths that spiral out below the ringed canopy overhead. They display symbols, apparatuses or postures that are supposed to be recognisable only to the initiated. Most people very quickly learn to read the signs though – it is a constant source of curiosity and gossip. It is normal to be alone here, but it would be a conspicuously strange act to pass through the concourse without stopping.

Like most people in my inland city, I work in the caring industries. I care for the algorithms and autonomous vehicles that are central to cross-country logistics. It is not always the most exciting work, but it is as honest as it gets. I check the interface to find the location of the workshop that currently has a vacancy for me.

I get completely engrossed in the complexity of today’s problem and find myself working the four-and-a-half-hour maximum. The caring industries rarely offer up neat solutions, and we continually work to teach the systems to be slightly better. A lot of patience is required.

This means that I often need to leave through the halls of frustration. Today I elect for the silent scream module and am soon fogging up the perspex booth with my breath. A corresponding haze emerges on the other side, another person shouting directly back into my face as I into theirs. I can’t hear a thing except my own screams. Inevitably the two of us make more sustained moments of eye contact and the cracks start to appear in our ruddy and contorted faces. We chuckle a bit on the inhale then scream again and so on until all that can possibly pass between us is maniacal laughter. I’ve been matched with this person before, and at the end we laugh a bit longer and more knowingly than
last time.

Nan said that the shape and speed of vehicles used to be the central facts of planning, so that the city was defined by lines of hazard. It produced myths of efficiency and urgency, but in reality everyone felt stuck, unable to experience the passing of time. Their history taught them that work was the point of the commute, but now, thanks to their legacy we agree that commuting is the point of work.

I pick up something to eat from the servo. It’s one of the more expensive servos but the food is very good. I carry it not towards my own home but to somewhere just as familiar: dirty path, the trees, the aged but well-used facilities. The pathway here meanders and loops, winding through dense clumps of trees where the damp smell and chill of autumn is intoxicating and small birds can be heard rustling around in the undergrowth. 

I met my lover playing kawuri at a concourse last year. We were so evenly matched that it took us three and a half hours to finish a single game, and even then, we tied. We walk together, hand-in-hand among many others who walk  and chatter through the fading pink light, witnessing the city take a quiet breath before the night commute begins.

This story was produced for our issue #14 Work. To grab a print copy (and pay only postage) head over to our shop.