Two years ago last month I moved 125km down the highway from my campus office. I made this move for my own wellbeing: I was unhappy in the town where my university resides, and I wanted to be closer to the theatre and performance work in Toronto that I routinely see (and write about professionally). I also wanted to be closer to friends in Toronto, and to the ebb and flow of that city’s urban life.
There’s nothing controversial about choosing a city to live in, and then moving there; well, nothing controversial unless you’re an academic. Those of us inside the ivory tower learn quickly, when we apply to graduate school, that very little of the job is about picking a place to live; it’s all about picking the right program, and the right supervisor, at the university that’s a best fit for your research. WHERE that university is located is generally immaterial; in grad school, anyway, you can reason it’s an adventure and you’re there 5 years max.
Another thing I get with my new home: close proximity to a landscape worth celebrating, playing in, and protecting. My work-life balance has really improved.
But if you follow this career path through, get *super* lucky and end up with a full time academic job, you realize the sting in this particular tail: the school that actually wants you and is about to throw an actual salary at you may not be in New York. Or Chicago, or San Francisco. Or Toronto. More likely it will be someplace quite far, both socially and culturally, from the places you most love and want to be. It may be really far from family and friends. It might even be in a community that is, at times, overtly hostile to your values, one that drains you from the inside.
But it’s still a job. Worse luck yet, it’s probably a really good job, a “dream” job. A job you need to take, because these jobs don’t grow on trees.
What happens to these insanely fortunate academics – people like me, with great jobs in cities they do not want to live in? Sometimes they make the best of it; I did for almost 10 years. Many of my friends in small-town or small-city universities tell me all the time how much they’ve grown to appreciate their new homes, and I respect that.
Sometimes they complain bitterly and on the regular, taking every chance to escape on city breaks at weekends (yup, also me).
And sometimes they decide to move away, and commute to campus part-time. This commute might be 50km, 100km, or 1000km long. Usually it’s a city-to-city commute, requiring cars, trains, and even airplanes to sustain.
I googled “commuting is hell”.
There are lots of us commuting to my university; in fact, it sells itself to new recruits with its proximity to Toronto. A decent number of my departmental colleagues commute, and we are often kindly accommodated in our teaching and meeting schedules, others taking pains to recognize that we’re only within shooting distance of campus a couple of times a week.
So my commute is a privilege, and I recognize this. My ability to work half the time from home, the respect my employer shows for my commuting choice, and of course my financial ability to afford to commute: these are all things I know I have that many others do not.
But my commute has also opened my eyes, wide, to how poor our public transport systems and infrastructure in North America are, especially when you leave major urban corridors behind. It has opened my eyes to how hard it can be for my students to get to class on time, when they are relying on packed buses running tens of minutes behind schedule even in the heart of the city. It has revealed the incredible economic privilege it can take to get around exclusively by public transportation in this part of my country, when the car is often a far cheaper and easier (and bloody faster, more convenient) option.
It has also revealed to me what it might look and feel like to be not so fortunate as to be able to commute to one’s good academic job, but rather to be financially trapped in a place where the job is good enough, but the living is not really, on balance, living. (But hey, in the neoliberal universe, working *is* living, right?)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1987. Sadly, the train in this image looks way more modern than the average VIA service.
How do I get to work from my new home? For the first winter, I drove exclusively. This proved emotionally devastating in ways I did not expect. I was exhausted from the driving, even though there’s virtually no traffic on the very well-maintained highways lining my route. (Turns out going 120kph for 75 minutes is stressful. Who knew?) I kept leaving too late and running out of the house with the gas hob still on. (Fun fact: you can leave a gas burner, with nothing atop it, on for 12 hours and it’s fine.) Sometimes I was so drained from the teaching day that I’d get gas for the drive home and forget to shut the gas tank door.
So driving all the time wasn’t the best. It was, however, by far the cheapest option – at most $25 round trip in gas, vs at minimum $55 round trip on the train, and that’s the super-planning-ahead rate. By no small measure it was also the fastest and most convenient option. Still, I was increasingly aware of just how much bigger my carbon footprint was growing; between January 2018 and January 2019 I think I put 40,000km on my VW Golf. (That’s twice what insurance companies consider an annual norm for North America.)
Last winter, faced with my stark new carbon reality, I started investing in the train journey despite the costs and timing inconveniences. VIA, Canada’s national intercity carrier, serves my local commuter rail station with a service that goes a bare few times daily between Toronto and London, ON. I bought a raft of tickets during a Boxing Week sale, scheduling my outbound train for first thing in the morning and my return for last thing at night.
Why? Because these were the only services that fit with my (totally normal, mid-afternoon) teaching schedule, and they turned my four-hour teaching day into a 14-hour colossus.
A glam shot of VIA’s “Rocky Mountaineer” snaking through the Jasper corridor. This is a holiday train. My train is not a holiday train.
The train proved saner, on balance, than the car: I could work on the train, relax and drink coffee rather than fretting about speeding, and I had plenty of time to schedule in stuff like yoga and visiting my elderly parents between classes and the departure home. So far, so middle-class work day.
But the train also came with added problems. For one, getting around town. I can walk to my campus office from the VIA station in about 50 minutes, which is pleasant on a warm winter morning but a real pain in the sleet and snow. The buses in London between downtown and campus are fine when they aren’t packed out and passing you by, but if I wanted to go from campus to my parents’ apartment the journey became a long, inconvenient ordeal for what is actually a 10-minute car ride. Taxis are ok, I guess, but they add up, and my commute was already costing me at least $300/month – not peanuts. Full size bikes are not allowed on the VIA, and there’s no bike share scheme in LonON.
I was feeling eco-friendly and also stranded.
When winter turned to spring and summer, my commute relaxed and I settled into research work in my home office, forgetting about the winter’s challenges. But then the extreme weather systems returned. “Climate change” became “the climate crisis”, and students rose up around the world to ask people of my generation to take it much, much more seriously.
Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral vessel, and got vitriolic attacks from privileged adults about the gall of her. I looked at her and thought two things: a) what an admirable young woman; b) wow, I wonder how many people on earth can commandeer a carbon-neutral sailboat for their trip to the UN.
This past August, I decided to commit to riding the train every day in term time that the option was available to me. I bought a Tern folding bicycle, taking the cash for the purchase from my commute budget. (These bikes are not cheap, and again I feel privileged to have been able to save for it.) I’ve now had a month of commuting with Titania (yup, I name all the bikes, and they are all bad-ass women), and it’s made a huge difference to my work days.
Titania, my new Tern folding bike, on the platform at my local station.
My point with this post is not to humblebrag about my eco-creds, nor to celebrate the nifty expensive things I’ve done to enable my posh commute. Not by a long shot.
Instead, I want to highlight how challenging it has been, even for a very fortunate and well paid professional like me, to create a life where my job doesn’t stop me living in a place I want to be, and doesn’t in the process add thousands and thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
I also want to highlight how easy it is to look away from these problems when you have a certain level of privilege and can just get on with driving the car and throwing money at the problem. This looking-away choice does not make you a bad person; it makes you a human in this world, where the structures of living and working have for so long been directed away from community care, care of the planet, and care of one another. The “bad” choice is almost never really a choice; it’s half a necessity.
Contrary to the popular discourse surrounding her, if Greta Thunberg shows us one thing clearly it is that the climate emergency, like the neoliberal superstructures that have abetted it, is not something individuals can solve: the solution will take real change at the highest levels of government and a firm commitment from whole communities to come out in solidarity for change.
A screenshot (likely illegal, tbh) of a fantastic recent cartoon about Greta Thunberg by First Dog On The Moon. Go here to read the whole thing.
Thunberg’s rise has demonstrated clearly that the climate crisis is not something all individuals are privileged enough to be able to address in equal measure; she knows she’s damn lucky to have had that carbon-neutral Atlantic crossing, and she is always at pains to remind people that her advocacy is not about her. Let’s not vilify her and students like her for their rising voices, and let’s not use their vocal protest as an excuse to do nothing ourselves.
Instead, let’s examine our choices not just for how they might change, but also for how they are structurally restricted from changing. Then, let’s use our discoveries about those structural problems to power further advocacy, on our campuses and in our broader communities, in solidarity with students, less fortunate friends and colleagues, and many more. We can do better by each other and by the planet – but, as with most things, only together.