Origins of the “Commuter”

The more you read, the more you know, right? Right. I learned about the origin of the word commuter this morning. It makes perfect sense after reading it, but it was just something I never thought of before.

Not long after the [New Haven Railroad] line linked the teeming city to country homes in Harlem…a perceptive railroad superintendent noticed a new class of customer: the repeat passenger, whose to-and-fro trips to work and home represented a potential marketing bonanza. Seizing the opportunity, the railroad originated an imaginative fare structure of tickets based not only on a onetime passage or even a round-trip, but on unlimited rides for six months or a full year at a steep discount from the single-rate fare. The full fare was commuted, and with one bold entrepreneurial stroke the railroad commuter–in name, at the very least–was officially born.

– Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts

I have to admit, I never pondered the etymology of the word before, I just grudge about the concept occasionally. Whose bright idea was it to make us city dwellers commute to work? How is it that it takes me an hour to get to a destination 7.5 miles from my apartment? Growing up on Long Island and watching family commute almost that long to get to work as well (by train, by car, you name it, no one had a commute of less than 40 minutes), I became conditioned to think that this is normal. And then I have friends moving to other places where they can drive or take a less-crowded train to work, and it takes them 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes! Seriously? It takes me almost 10 minutes from the front door of my apartment to the subway platform, and this person is 2/3 of the way to work already.

One day, I’ll live in a place where my commute takes less time than a full episode of Game of Thrones. Until then, at least now I can answer trivia questions about how the word “commute” came to be.