Professors with commutes longer than a lecture

How does travelling affect life as a lecturer in university?

Dublin is an epicentre of culture, work and life in Ireland. Yet despite the growing number of citizens who work and study in Dublin-based universities, only a small percentage actually live here. Some have personal ties to smaller communities on the fringes of the capital city, others are forced into the commuter belt by the rising cost of central accommodation. As a result, both students and lecturers choose to commute long distances from their suburban or rural homes to universities in the city.  

How do long hours commuting to college impact the lives of these individuals, especially lecturers, at the institutions around Dublin? What can the government or the college do to aid these lecturers, and the wider group of commuters travelling long distances to university? The testimonials of three lecturers at Dublin area universities highlight the experience of commuting to Dublin from three main areas – the suburban commuter belt extending from Louth to Wexford, intercity travel from farther urban areas such as Galway, Cork and Belfast and, finally, rural regions in the West of Ireland. 

I liken the suburbs to a patchwork blanket of various shades and opposing textures that must learn to be knitted to each other.”

There is no doubt that moving to a city, especially a capital city, provokes a series of life alterations that can prove incredibly difficult for anyone to navigate. As a student who moved from Bettystown, Meath to Rathmines to attend college last year, I feel a distinct difference between “fact-paced” city life and suburban commuter living. Suburban communities can feel like a bubble in which everyone knows everyone. Socializing occurs in small pockets such as your local supermarket and secondary school, and no two people maintain the same accent with so many commuting to different areas for work. For example, people who reside in Bettystown work in Dundalk, Drogheda and Dublin, places that have contrasting accents. I liken the suburbs to a patchwork blanket of various shades and opposing textures that must learn to be knitted to each other.

Suburban towns are a result of the fact that bigger cities offer more jobs, but not enough space for everyone to live close to their workplaces. Many migrate to fringe lands that are affordable and connect to Dublin or another city via public transport, such as the Irish rail system. My family is very familiar with such long commutes – my father, Dr. Neil Hurley, a computer science lecturer who lives in Bettystown and works in University College Dublin, has been commuting two hours to work door to door for the last twenty years. He favours the train over driving or taking the bus as it allows him to correct assignments and write code during that otherwise obsolete four hours a day travelling: “I am essentially working from eight in the morning to six at night even though my office hours are only from ten until four.” He establishes this as a perk of commuting; he can live in a reasonably priced and sized house with his partner and family who work and study in the Dundalk and Bettystown areas without having to compromise work hours. 

However, the commute does not come without its downsides. Dr. Hurley identifies the biggest struggle of commuting as the capacity for one work day to physically and mentally drain him: “I must have energy and enthusiasm when lecturing and that is sometimes a difficult performance to muster on a Friday when I have been travelling all week.” When asked if there was any measure that could be implemented by the university or the government that would improve his commute, Dr. Hurley outlined a massive injustice in the pricing of public transport. An adult train ticket from Laytown, the closest village to Bettystown, costs around twenty euro for a return trip, while the same ticket from Balbriggan, just a few stops up on the same commuter line, costs half that price. The student ticket can sometimes be more expensive than the adult ticket, so there is no compensation for those who can’t afford such sky-high prices. When you consider that hundreds of people commute from these suburban seaside villages to Dublin by necessity as they cannot afford to live nearer to work, this price is unacceptable.

As the housing crisis in Dublin and across the country worsens, the number of people moving to the commuter suburbs for financial reasons will only increase. The country is currently experiencing an umbrella of urban-based issues: skyrocketing rent costs; hoarding of property by landlords; a lack of affordable student accommodation; and the subsequent growing number of homeless people in Ireland, which has risen to 10,397 in September 2019 from 3,258 in July 2014 according to latest figures from Focus Ireland. With forced suburban exodus will come other issues. 

Travelling on commuter trains, which can already be overcrowded and uncomfortable, will become increasingly unpleasant as more people are forced to settle down in suburban areas due to a rise in housing and living costs in the city. Dr. Hurley requires a seat on his morning and evening train to work – yet boarding a train uncrowded enough to have available seating is a progressively uncommon occurrence as a consequence of the housing crisis. Irish Rail have launched a new website called “peaktimes” where commuters can check the busiest hours on the train. However, this initiative fails to tackle the issue entirely as most regular commuters who are crowding the trains during morning and rush hours will continue to take the trains that get them to and from work on time. Perhaps a more useful solution would be to fund the running of multiple train services to these areas at the most popular times.

While the commute from the suburbs to Dublin can prove unpleasant and unproductive, Dr.

Clare Clarke, of the Trinity English department, finds her regular commute from Belfast manageable. Intercity travel, despite amounting to a greater distance than travel from suburban areas around Dublin, takes only slightly longer due to traffic which blocks up the motorways around the city and delays train and bus services at peak time. Though the distance from Belfast to Dublin is roughly 141 kilometres in comparison to the mere 48 kilometers from Bettystown to Dublin, Dr. Clarke’s commute is on average only one hour longer than Dr. Hurley’s. 

Dr. Clarke spends 2,500-3,000 euro a year on travel to Dublin, which is significantly less expensive than renting a house in Dublin.”

Since she began working at Trinity six years ago, Dr. Clarke has travelled 3 hours door to door on the train from Belfast three days a week. When asked why she favoured commuting over living closer to work, Dr. Clarke asserted that living in Dublin is simply not a choice anymore. “Initially, my job was not permanent, so I didn’t want to commit to moving from Belfast—which is somewhere relatively cheap to live, with affordable good quality housing — to Dublin, which is so expensive,” she explained. “When my job became permanent, I still felt the same, except that the housing situation in Dublin had become much worse!” Dr. Clarke spends €2,500-3,000 a year on travel to Dublin, which is significantly less expensive than renting a house in Dublin, which can cost up to 4,000 a month. Similarly to Dr. Hurley, she commutes to be able to live in a reasonable house and to suit the schedule of her partner, who works at Queens University.

Despite the appeals of commuting, Dr. Clarke struggles with balancing the long commute with a social life with her colleagues, which is undoubtedly an important aspect of feeling a sense of belonging at your workplace. “I’m sorry that I can’t participate in as many of the social or evening events as I’d like to,” she said, “as staying in college beyond 7pm means I don’t get home until about 11.30pm”. Adhering to unmoveable and often infrequent public transport times damages one’s ability to bond with colleagues at events after a college day. More than that, commuting six hours a day coupled with giving lectures and tutorials proves incredibly tiring and limits the ability of Dr. Clarke and other lecturers in a similar position to participate in university life.

Deciding against unearthing your life for a career in an urban area can prove rewarding despite the tiring journey that ensues.”

Dr. Alan Kelly, a history teaching assistant who has been working in Trinity for four years, commutes 1.5 to 2 hours to college every day from a rural area in Co. Roscommon. Though he lives in an entirely different region from Bettystown and Belfast, Dr. Kelly expressed identical struggles with commuting to Dr. Hurley and Dr. Clarke, namely that the journey is useful for correcting papers but draining of mental energy. However, Dr. Kelly stands by his decision to commute, in spite of the trials. “I am particularly active in my home community,” he explained, citing involvement with Gaelic Football and Athletics, “and this makes the ridiculous commute worthwhile.” This highlights the close-knit quality of rural communities – friendships are forged there, homes are built and routines are settled into. It can, therefore, be incredibly difficult to move away from that bubble and unfair to ask those who have to work in the city to leave their home behind. Deciding against unearthing your life for a career in an urban area can prove rewarding despite the tiring journey that ensues. 

It is imperative to note that, although travelling is less than ideal for anyone, lecturers do avail of a number of perks that improve their work life that remain unavailable to students with similar commutes. Dr. Clarke was eager to shine a light on how the same situation can affect students in far worse ways. “I feel very worried and sorry for students who cannot afford to live in Dublin and therefore have long, tiring daily commutes but don’t have control of their timetable or the luxury of opting out of 9am classes,” she said, “and who may be missing the societies, evening lectures, and social events which are all an integral part of college life.”

The number of students with long commutes may only increase. It is becoming increasingly difficult for students, especially the many second year students who have just left the comfort and protection of university-run accommodation, to secure accommodation in Dublin. The rent market is vicious and there is little to no support offered to inexperienced students who are vulnerable to exploitation by landlords well-versed in the workings of the market. Those who are forced to pay extortionately high-priced rent often have to work during the college term, which impacts their ability to focus on TEP-introduced, arduous continuous assessments that affect their overall grade. Those who opt to commute long hours a day because they cannot afford or find accommodation often similarly struggle with academic work and participating in society life as they are exhausted by travelling. 

It is essential that universities all over Dublin acknowledge this issue and actively work to aid students who are affected by it, through lowering prices of university accommodation or offering accommodation bursaries, implementing a support-system for students who are seeking accommodation and putting pressure on the government to improve public transport services which are currently time-consuming and financially demanding. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of the institution to ensure that both their employees and students feel comfortable attending college, as a place of learning and as a place of work. 

Commuting is simply not a problem separate from college life as no one can lecture or study if their train is delayed. Whether the commuters in question are lecturers or students, whether the motive to commute is financial or emotional, a long commute inevitably comes with trade-offs to quality of university life.