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Your commute sucks. Here’s how it will get way better in the future

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Life isn’t going to get any less busy, so time will be an even more precious commodity. And that might mean paying to take a slower train.

Since we spend roughly one-third of our lifetimes working, exploring how we make the most of our time ‘at work’ is a ripe area for innovation. In the last few years, we’ve seen more and more companies introducing remote working and flexible hours, in the hopes of improving employee satisfaction and productivity by giving employees more control over where and when they work. Some companies, like Normally (a digital design agency in London), have even introduced a four-day working week.

These changes mean that more than 50 per cent of workers now report that they work outside the main office at least 2.5 days a week, according to research conducted by Regus in the UK.

This flexibility has potential health advantages, especially for those who can reduce the amount of time spent commuting or eliminate it altogether. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that feelings of happiness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s activities are worthwhile decrease with every successive minute of commuting. The fact is that commuting is stressful for many people. And it’s not just the physical stress, discomfort and fatigue that does the most damage. Our mental health takes a hit because commuting is stressful, particularly when we don’t have control over external factors (traffic jams, delays and cancellations on public transport).

It’s not just a lack of control while travelling that compounds feelings of unhappiness, it’s also boredom. Research shows that those who feel more positive about their commutes are the people who are able to use the time they’re travelling effectively, whether it’s working, reading or winding down.

So, there are certainly opportunities for improving the daily commuter grind. And travel operators are trying out a range of solutions: Wi-Fi on some London Underground lines, more plug sockets on trains, and up-to-date, accurate information about delays. But while these changes are an improvement, they’re not consistent or joined-up, leaving many people still feeling like they are wasting their lives, money and health when they travel to and from work.

So how could future transport services help commuters achieve their desired state of mind or task, while still getting to where they need to go?

You will pay extra to spend more time travelling

Travel will be designed to offer valuable time for their ‘time-poor’ customers.

There are many products and services that save time, but recently we’re even starting to see these services market themselves as the more expensive option, with companies betting that people see more value saving time and hassle than saving a few quid, for example WeBuyAnyCar.com.

There are also travel services that are purposefully less efficient time-wise, focusing instead on meeting other needs, specifically rest and rejuvenation. For example, Cabin’s overnight coach service in the US that takes a longer route so that passengers can get eight uninterrupted hours of sleep in the specially-designed sleep pods.

We know that ‘extreme commuting’ (a commute of 90 minutes or more, each way) is becoming more common. According to the ONS research, a commute time of three hours a day or more is often a happier experience than shorter journeys because travellers can use their time more productively, especially if they have a seat and table to work at.

Inner city travel operators could provide longer travel options that buy their travellers more time, while providing them with the environment (accessible and reliable connection, comfort and privacy), of course, to get on with what they need to do.

Your own private office on public transport

Work will be conducted anywhere, anytime. Nine-to-five schedules and static offices with capacity for the entire workforce will die out. We’re already seeing examples, including BT’s recent decision to abandon its large London HQ for “a smaller, future-oriented working environment”. This change is part of a plan to cut its office locations across the UK from 50 to 30.

But with no main office to flock to for work, people will need practical, productive and private spaces to work, outside of the home.

Transport could provide personally-configurable spaces that meet the needs of mobile workers, which may range from rest and relaxation (sleep, meditation), to reading, creating, eating, talking, and learning.

These spaces will be especially desirable for longer trips of 20 minutes or more and for modes of transport such as cars, trains, airplanes, and long-distance buses. However, some form of personal and private space would also be desired on shorter journeys and across public transport modes. Such benefits on public transport could encourage people to use the London Underground again, reversing the recent trend of decreasing passenger numbers.

Collaboration on the go

The death of the traditional office and the increase in working from home and ‘coffices’ (coffee shops that double up as offices for freelancers and entrepreneurs) will make it hard to collaborate effectively.

Employers and workers will need to find ways to connect to and collaborate with colleagues, customers and partners – both physically and virtually. Transport could provide mobile meeting rooms that allow for in-person and virtual collaboration.

Such a solution would create a hard stop and encourage teams to get through the meeting agenda before reaching their destination. Transport providers could also partner with organisations that provide coworking spaces and ‘coffices’, especially those that have private work booths and flexible meeting spaces and work with companies that develop technology for remote collaboration, such as virtual reality.

Facebook is investing vast amounts of time and money in its social VR app in which user-created avatars interact with each other in real time in either virtual or real-world environments. This, or something similar, could be used in moving meeting rooms or coworking spaces to include geographically-distributed colleagues.

More than just Mobility as a Service

As more people live and work in cities, more modes of transport are developed, and more real-time traveller data is produced, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) will emerge as a way to tame the complexity of transportation systems and to meet the needs of different types of travellers.

But what is MaaS? Imagine if Netflix’s subscription business model were applied to urban travel, and we all paid a monthly subscription to get us to where we need to get to in the city (and its outskirts), no matter what mode to public or private transport we use. That’s the idea behind MaaS.

It’s already happening in some parts of Europe. People in Helsinki have been using an app called Whim since 2016 to plan and pay for all modes of public and private transport, whether it’s bus, train, taxi, carshare or bikeshare.

Journey planning apps like CityMapper already help people identify and compare different modes of transport depending on their location, destination and other real-time data. If the next logical step – bringing these options together on one pay platform – is realised (which many transport experts and urban futurists believe will happen in the next decade) then the result will be a seamlessly connected transport system.

People will expect all modes to transport to be fully integrated into an easy-to-use service that meets their individual needs for each journey.

Taking this further, the monthly subscription that bundles together multiple transport options could also enable people to configure their travel experience depending on that they want to achieve – quiet meditation, productive work, creative chat, or something else entirely. The service could stretch beyond transport, connecting passengers to other services at their destination, such as booking a room at a coworking space, or private booth at a coffee shop.

Maeve Keane is director and co-founder of Future Tonic.

Want to know about the future of transport?

This article is part of our WIRED on Transport series where we explore the challenges and solutions in transport, such as the future of borders after Brexit, the new race to make supersonic travel work and the hover train that never was.

Follow the hashtag #WIREDonTransport on Twitter for all our coverage and click the links below for more stories in the series.

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