While there are many forms of commuting today, it all started with the railroad.
As the first railroads expanded out from the cities, people quickly saw the advantage of traveling this faster and more reliable form of transportation for their business trip into the city from the outlying communities. It was a New Jersey man, Judge F.S. Lathrup, whom in 1841 first asked the fledgling Lackawanna predecessor Morris and Essex Railroad for a ticket good for a fixed duration over a specific route in exchange for a reduced fare. The railroad decided to offer Judge Lathrop a commutated ticket for his daily journey from Morristown to Newark and with the foresight to see a steady business, soon offered these reduced price fares as a regular ticket. These commuters, as the ticket holders came to be called, started a cultural and economic shift that transformed our relationship between where we live and work. No longer were we tied to proximity for job opportunities or livability and the railroads who started this shift, encouraged it through heavy promotion.
Get Away from it all on the Lackawanna
Think it over…isn’t there a lot more to this thing called living than the never-ending noise and clamor and dirt and crowding that one puts up with in never-ending city life? Is it all really worth it, only to save that extra half-hour or so in getting to and from one’s business?
Remember that over in the New Jersey suburbs, out along the Lackawanna Railroad, people are really living.
They’ve got clear clean fresh air and lots and lots of sunshine…their own comfortable homes, rather than cramped and airless flats…broad lawns and gay flower gardens…winding shaded streets and spacious parks. And they’ve got friends who are real and lasting. For out there they have the room to work and the room to play and the room to relax. In a word, they have the opportunity to carry on the intelligent and balanced sort of life which is the birthright of every American family.
– Excerpt from a Lackawanna Railroad pamphlet. Note that the italic emphasis of several words is copied from the original document.
For the railroad, these commuters meant a steady traffic base and cash flow. Soon, railroads across the country offered these fares and encouraged the development of the suburbs. Over time, the private railroads would regret offering these low commutated fares as they did not cover their fixed costs of operation. A century later, all these commuter operations would be turned over to various state transit organizations, but not before changing forever how we live and commute to work. It was the railroad that envisioned suburbia as a place and lifestyle.
Judge Lathrop would be in awe of the sprawling suburban communities that grew along the railroad line, but he wouldn’t feel out of place taking that same familiar commute today. The equipment has changed and so has the architecture, but the experience remains much as it was in his day. 175 years after the Morris and Essex offered that first commutation ticket to Judge Lathrop, I ride these same rails, now known as the Morris and Essex line of New Jersey Transit for my daily commute into New York City. While Judge Lathrop would recognize my commute, I can’t image what this same commute will be like in another 175 years…in the year 2191!
For now, commuter rail is one of the most efficient means of moving people from where they live to where they want to work, and many cities are reactivating old transit lines or starting new ones. Although the majority of commuting is now done by car, we owe the concept to the railroad which ushered in one of the greatest transformations to our society and built environment.