Saturday, January 4, 2014

Commuting is old as the hills….

Well, OK, maybe not quite as old as the hills.

But "commuting" has a very American history, all the way back to the 1830s in Boston.

Throughout modern human history (last 1,500 years or so), folks who weren't doing farming or "cottage industry" work purposefully tended to live within an hour's walk (or hour's travel time) from the place where they worked. That makes sense, especially centuries ago, when there was no public lighting and darkness tended to shut down a lot of activity, and so spending no more than a couple hours a day getting to and from work seemed like a really smart thing to do….and, of course, a lot of folks lived a lot closer than that to their workplace.

In the 1830s, Boston investors and entrepreneurs started building the railroad infrastructure that would create "spokes" of rail lines leading from the central city "hub" to sparsely populated places that would become Newton, Providence, Worcester, Lowell, Salem, Newburyport, Plymouth, Fitchburg….

Now, here's the thing: these railroad pioneers built their lines to handle freight. Gradually it dawned on them that they could profitably carry people. Add in a little real estate speculation, and some homebuilding, and upper class folks who wanted to get out of the city, and Voila! The first approximation of suburbs appeared along the tracks extending outward from Boston.

The owners of the Eastern Railroad running to Newburyport, and the folks at Boston & Worcester R.R. serving Newton, started offering reduced price "season tickets" to regular users of their lines, that is, the folks who lived outside Boston and went in to the city to work or do business regularly. These tickets were said to have "commuted" prices—an old-fashioned meaning of "commute" is "to change or reduce."

So these early suburban travelers taking advantage of the "commuted" tickets came to be called "commuters." They could live outside Boston and still have an hour or less travel time to their work.

By 1849, there were 105 commuter trains arriving in Boston every weekday….and, y'know, they didn't have any traffic jams on the rail lines. We could use more rail lines today.

My sources for this historical tidbit:
Henry C. Binford, The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 95.
James C. O'Connell, The Hub's Development: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 42.

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