fb-pixel

Suddenly that grimy crowded subway car doesn’t look so bad

Stuck at home in a coronavirus shutdown, stir-crazy commuters look back on the daily commute with nostalgia.

Yensy Valerio waited for her Orange Line train at the State Station in Boston.
Yensy Valerio waited for her Orange Line train at the State Station in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Lauren Margharita misses the Orange Line.

Yes, that Orange Line.

Time was, the Roslindale resident would jam onto a bus and then a packed subway car en route to her job as an administrator at Wentworth Institute of Technology. With the coronavirus shutting so much of Greater Boston and indeed the world, she’s been working at home, cooped up with three out-of-school teenagers. What she’s lacking is the personal downtime — the sort of buffer zone between work and home that a daily commute offers.

“I’d be standing on the filthy Orange Line, but it is quality time for myself,” Margharita said. “It’s not at work and it’s not at home, so it is me time.”

Advertisement



It is not an uncommon sentiment among the thousands of workers whose daily commute is now no farther than to the dining table or a makeshift office in the basement. The bane of so much daily life in Greater Boston — the late trains, suffocating crowds, crushing traffic — has with a few days of self-imposed isolation acquired an almost nostalgic allure.

An empty South Station Red Line gate during the morning commute.
An empty South Station Red Line gate during the morning commute. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“It’s almost a familiarity we’ve lost. I never would have a month ago told you that I would miss my commute,” said Barnabas Furth, a financial analyst who rides the Red Line from Dorchester and spoke longingly about morning coffee stops at Dunkin’ after unloading at South Station. “It’s something you never would have expected to miss, and now you do.”

For others, it’s not that they miss unreliable trains or crowded highways, per se. Amy Bucher, for example, sometimes criticizes the MBTA on social media; she doesn’t take any of that back. But she misses the walk to and from the train, and the people-watching that comes with a commute from Charlestown to the Leather District.

Call it longing, call it optimism, Bucher elected not to cancel her monthly MBTA pass for April, on the hope that normal work life may resume sooner rather than later.

Advertisement



“Putting it on hold felt sort of like giving up,” Bucher said.

Even some drivers say they’re missing their alone time — if not the traffic congestion.

“It certainly helped to decompress at the end of the day, to have 15 to 20 minutes on your own in the car,” said Kristen Halloran, whose commute between North Attleborough and Pawtucket, R.I., admittedly spared her from Boston’s until-recently despairing backups. “Having some time to talk on the phone with family, or just sing really loud to show tunes, things only the car should hear, was a nice way to get out any last frustrations.”

Back in November, Jim Kogler of Quincy, drove to work in Cambridge.
Back in November, Jim Kogler of Quincy, drove to work in Cambridge.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

These feelings are common for new telecommuters, said Rebecca Achurch, a North Carolina consultant who runs a firm that helps companies transition to remote work. Commuting isn’t just about getting to and fro; for many, it’s one of the few free periods in their day when they can unwind, whether that’s listening to a podcast, for example, or reading a book.

“As much as people may complain and fuss about their commutes, what it does serve as is a critical period of transmission mentally, to shut down their workday and transition to what to expect on the home front,” Achurch said.

“I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘I miss being packed in like a sardine on the Metro, or I love that it costs me $15 a day to get to my job.’ But there is something about the ritual that when you take it away, people tend to work longer and they forget they need to transition.”

Advertisement



Experts recommend that remote workers try to replicate the commute in some ways — maybe with a walk in the morning, if physical movement is what they’re missing, or by making time for a new hobby as the workday comes to a close.

“You should replace that commute time with something that becomes a habit and signals to your brain that you’re shutting off from work,” said Laura Hambley, president of the Canadian firm Work Evohlution, which also focuses on helping to set up remote workforces.

But that can be easier said than done.

Jen Litowski of Arlington, for example, liked her usual commute, a bike ride into Kendall Square. Stuck at home, she’s tried to get herself out for a ride each day to to get the exercise and mental reprieve cycling provides. But she’s found it tough to build that into her schedule.

“Taking that time isn’t something I’ve been able to make routine,” she said. “The commuting time was built into my day already, one way or another. Now I have to make time, to set time aside from it.”

People crossed in front of  a nearly empty South Station during rush hour on March 23.
People crossed in front of a nearly empty South Station during rush hour on March 23.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

Not everybody is so wistful about their old commute. Mark Gordon of Newton, for example, doesn’t miss his long Green Line rides, followed by a Red Line connection to his Cambridge office, a trip that all-in could take an hour. He’s much happier, he said, “when my commute consists of swinging my legs off the side of the bed.”

Advertisement



“This is time I get to myself, more or less carte blanche,” Gordon said. “I’m not limited to things I could only do on the train.”

Others say they might like telecommuting — if they weren’t also handling childcare or had a better at-home office. Jim Kogler, a Quincy resident who had mostly commuted to his Cambridge office by car, has been relegated to his basement of late.

“It’s cold, and I miss my car,” he said by e-mail.

Samantha Khosla of Marlborough wondered if, once this is all over, the daily back-and-forth will find new favor among a public eager to be out and about again. Considering the economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, she, like others, said she’s grateful to have a job — commute or no commute.

“The challenge about people liking commuting in the first place is you’re starting with a deficit,” she said. “You have a lot of people going somewhere they don’t like that much. Maybe that will change.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.