Guest blog: In the car on the M4 - my transitory dwelling place, my space in-between - By Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor in Organisational Studies, University of the West of England Bristol

As Work Wise Commute Smart Week comes to a close, I thought I might write a piece that, I hope, will raise some thoughts and reflections about how and why our commutes might offer a space for escape and freedom. Taking a critical, analytical view here, I offer some thoughts on the commute as a space ‘in-between’ in which we can momentarily break away from the multitude of identities we seek to maintain in contemporary society, and temporarily find a sense of sanctuary in a working world characterized by change and fluidity.

The commute. On a train, on a bus, or in a car. It is a space in-between the dominant spaces of work and home. It is a liminal space. Or is it?

In my paper, ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’’ (Shortt, 2015), I argue that spaces in-between – or liminal spaces – become transitory dwelling places when they are made meaningful by workers. I was talking about spaces at work in this paper –  like corridors, stairwells, and toilets. Places in which, as my research shows, workers hang out in order to seek privacy, escape the visibility of work, or hide away with colleagues for snatched conversations away from the open-plan office. But recently, my commute in my car from Bath to Bristol and back seems to be taking on similar characteristics. It’s my little space in-between. My space to escape.

But let’s take a step back a bit – what is a liminal space anyway? Liminal spaces were originally defined by social anthropologists as a period of time/ space ‘in-between’ typically during an individuals’ rite of passage (van Gennep, 1909/1960; Turner, 1974, 1982). More recently however, others have advanced and extended ideas around these sorts of spaces. For example, Sturdy et al (2006) suggest business dinners are liminal spaces and offer individuals opportunities to share secrets, speak honestly and share creative ideas. In a recent text that specifically explores ‘liminal landscapes’, Thomassen, and others, highlight that the, ‘spatial dimensions of liminality can relate to specific places...a doorway...areas or zones...border areas...prisons...airports...’ (2012:26). Connections can be made here to Marc Augé’s discussion of airports (and motorways and hotels) as ‘non-places’ (1995). Augé identified these sorts of spaces as transitory, temporary spaces in which we physically, only momentarily dwell, and as such, and in contrast to ‘places’, they are not concerned with relationships, history or identity (1995:77). 

Cultural geographers and tourism studies have also helped to extend these ideas. In these spaces, they suggest, can be found ‘brief moments of freedom and an escape from the daily grind of social responsibilities’ (Preston-Whyte 2004:350). Hotels have been defined as liminal spaces, arguing that these surroundings too are ‘limbo-like’ and afford users and visitors a space in which they may suspend the ‘daily grind’ and where ‘anonymity, romance and adventure’ may be found (Pritchard and Morgan 2006:764). Notably, this somewhat contrasts with Augé’s hotels as ‘non-places’ where he suggests that such transitory spaces lack ‘organic social life’ (1995) – research in this field argues that such liminal spaces are positively rich with social life.

And I would have to agree – these micro-geographies of social life are rich with meaning and significance in everyday working lives. For example, Iedema et al research the corridors of hospitals and have shown how these liminal spaces afford hospital staff, including doctors, nurses and trainees, an important informal, often ‘ad hoc’ environment in which to engage in conversations, teaching and knowledge exchange. Indeed, further studies that explore the health care profession and spatial practices note the use of corridors as key to everyday interactions and communications (Pearce 2003; Peleg 1999). Although there are debates within this literature as to how ethically appropriate it is to conduct such communications in hospital corridors (Hanley 2003), it is clearly acknowledged that corridors, due to their liminal status and ‘precisely because it lack(s) functional definition’ (Iedema et al 2012:43), offer a temporary space for conversations without organizational conventions.

Characteristically then, these liminal spaces are in-between borderlands where boundaries, to some extent, are blurred and are difficult to clearly define, making them semi-private, semi-public. It is in these sorts of undefined spaces we ourselves may then experience being undefined and where our behaviour may be unconstrained by social norms and where we might argue, as Turner suggests ‘anything may happen’ (1974:13). So, this idea could be extended to the commuting space – a car, a train, a bus – we could argue that these are transitory, temporary spaces that offer moments for reflection, freedom and sense of escape. Certainly for me, there is freedom to be found in my car on the way to work. The space to leave the mother/ wife/ home ‘me’ behind and consider the day ahead without interruption. And a space to decompress from the working day, to dissolve and melt the nagging thoughts of the things I haven’t done, before I arrive home and take up my other identities as I walk through the front door. On that journey to and from work I listen to music, the radio, podcasts, and audio books. Sometimes I sit in silence. I don’t like it when I get a call from work when I’m in the car – it’s like work is encroaching on my no-man’s-land (or, rather, no-woman’s land). Here in the car, on my own, I feel I am in some sort of escape pod - I am undefined and I am not ‘worker’ or ‘mother/ wife’ – I can just be. It’s my space.

Indeed, others might agree. Jain and Lyons discuss this very topic in their brilliant paper ‘The gift of travel time’ (2008) where they argue ‘transition time particularly articulates the liminal process of travelling; the potential to adjust and alter between places, such as work and home.  Time and place of departure and destination become blurred, with the journey becoming a nebulous boundary.  Transition time is a gift to the traveller…’ (p.17). Jain and Lyons go on to highlight other studies that suggest a commute allows one to prepare for the destination, be it work or family matters (Davies, 2001; Pearce, 2000) and ‘that women particularly utilize this time to shed the burdens of work and prepare for the demands of home life (Pazy et al., 1996; Richter, 1990)’ (2008:14).

But just as I argue in my liminal spaces paper (Shortt, 2015), as soon as liminal spaces become meaningful – i.e. when they are subjectively experienced as sites for privacy or informal territories or escape pods – then they cease to be liminal anymore. The whole point of a liminal space is that it cannot be defined – that’s what makes it liminal in the first place. So as I suggest, when liminal spaces become meaningful and defined by the user, but still maintain characteristics of being ‘in-between’, they become transitory dwelling places. Thus, my car is now my transitory dwelling place and as Jain and Lyons note, this is my space to adjust and alter between places and identities. It is a vital part of my working day and allows me to create important ‘pauses’ between different roles and (often conflicting) identities. And for that, I am thankful.

So, we might want to take some time to consider what is ‘smart’ about commuting. I would certainly argue that there are huge benefits for not commuting at all, or indeed commuting later or earlier in the day and working more flexible hours, or perhaps using different modes of transport for commuting purposes that create different spaces and places for reflection or ‘time out’. However we choose to commute I would suggest we need to consider why this space might be constructed - or rather re-constructed - as a place for escape and freedom from the daily grind. A ‘smart’ commute might be to create a fruitful no-man’s-land for reflection and transition away from work, away from home, where we can suspend social expectations and norms and just press pause.

Dr Harriet Shortt



Full references available on request…but to find out more about liminal spaces and more specifically, the ‘gift of travel time’, see:

Jain, J. and Lyons, G. (2008) The gift of travel time. The Journal of Transport Geography, 16 (2). pp. 81-89

Pazy, A., Salomon, I. and Pintzov, T., (1996)  The impacts of women's careers on their commuting behavior: a case study of Israeli computer professionals. Transportation Research Part A  30, pp. 269-286

Pearce, L. (2000)  Devolving Identities: Feminist Readings in Home and Belonging.  London:  Ashgate.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work’ Human Relations, 68 (4) 633 - 658