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Is It Time to Do Something About Time?

The way we deal with it says a lot about our national and local cultures. Reforming it may not be so much about formal government action as about humans’ willingness to change their habits.

On a visit to Madrid a decade or so ago, I practiced my usual habit of getting up at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and walking down to one of the nearby coffeehouses for a wake-up drink. I was surprised to find that most of these establishments were packed with customers, some of them in fancy dress. Eventually I realized these people weren’t early risers like me — they were just coming in after partying or socializing until dawn. They were affluent Spaniards who thought nothing of staying up all night.

A few days later in Barcelona, my wife and I would hold off on going to restaurants for dinner until 9 p.m., even though we sometimes found it physically uncomfortable to wait that long. We soon discovered that at 9 o’clock the places we picked out were either just opening their doors or weren’t open for business yet at all. The locals were in the habit of settling in at 10 or so for dinners that lasted until midnight or later.

The broader conclusion wasn’t very hard to draw: Spaniards have an entirely different sense of time from Americans, or from most Europeans for that matter. It was wired into them, culturally if not genetically, and there was no reason to think they would bother changing it.

Having absorbed those lessons, I was surprised to learn recently that Barcelona had become the center of a multinational movement questioning the way urbanites use their time, and arguing that flawed time schedules were a threat to economic productivity, good health and human happiness. Barcelona’s time reformers aren’t just talking about afternoon siestas and midnight dinners — they are investigating the entire structure of time practices in any urban setting.

Barcelona plays host to Time Use Week each fall. It has adopted as its slogan “City of Time and People.” It has been selected as the “world capital of time policies’’ by a global time-studies network. Sonia Ruiz, the leading time-reform advocate on the Barcelona City Council, has declared that “our main mission is to promote a better organization of time in order to foster a healthier, more efficient and more equal society.”

YOU MIGHT ARGUE that Barcelona is one of the last places in the world where you would expect this. You might also argue that it is one of the places that can best use it.

The city’s time reformers claim to have advanced nearly 70 initiatives to help rationalize the way its citizens apportion their time. So far most of them are just initiatives, not actual programs, but some have been put into practice. One is the institution of expanded evening hours at libraries and research facilities so serious students can, if they wish, devote the end of the day to scholarly pursuits rather than partying. Another is the use of “time banks,” which I will describe in detail a little later. The City Council has sponsored television programs encouraging residents to move up their mealtimes.

Why are they doing this? Ariadna Guell, co-coordinator of the Barcelona Time Use Initiative, offers a succinct explanation: The issue is partly biology and partly ideology. “Misalignment with our internal biological clocks,” she writes, ‘’significantly increases rates of sleep deprivation, sleep disorders, depression, metabolic disorders, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and early mortality. It disrupts traffic and work. It hinders education and learning ability. It shifts human activity times, escalating fuel consumption and energy waste. It needlessly burdens health-care systems, economies and the environment.”

At the heart of the debate in Barcelona is the question of time zones. Time reformers there, as in America as well, point out correctly that the single time feature citizens dislike most is the requirement to adjust clocks twice a year. A poll of Americans conducted in 2019 by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center concluded that 71 percent of respondents did not want to do this. Studies suggest the problem is more than just one of personal preferences. Research has shown there are more car crashes in the hours and days following a change to standard or daylight time, and some studies suggest that more people suffer heart attacks and strokes as well, although the evidence on this is somewhat thin and the effect is small in any case.

In 2018, a European Union commission proposed an end to all seasonal time changes; early this year the U.S. Senate, with little debate and no dissent, approved a bill to do away with time changes and make daylight savings time universal throughout America. But the House has taken no action on the bill, amid a flurry of disagreement, and it appears unlikely to become law any time soon.

THERE ARE GOOD REASONS WHY NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. If any country goes to universal daylight time, there are millions of people who won’t like it. Not only will children be leaving for school in the wintertime darkness, but commuters in some places will find it dark when they leave the house at 9 o’clock, a situation they are unlikely to appreciate. Universal standard time, on the other hand, would deny recreation-seekers an hour of sunshine on summer evenings and cost outdoor entertainment businesses millions of dollars in revenue.

The answer is that there is no answer. The Barcelona reformers argue that the best alternative is a system that fixes noon at the moment when the sun is highest and straightest in the sky, as any sundial can determine. This, they claim, would bring us closest to a natural arrangement in which the hours of daylight are equal to the hours of darkness, reputedly the best arrangement for human health. They may be right. But while I may be naïve, I have trouble figuring out how this would work. Noon would arrive at different times even in neighboring parts of the country. If this were carried out to its ultimate conclusion, we could find ourselves regressing to the 19th-century chronometric chaos in which clocks showed noon in Cincinnati and 12:30 p.m. in Cleveland. Of course, time zones could be arranged to minimize this problem somewhat, but it still seems that we would end up with more of a hodgepodge of zones than we are living with now.

The time reformers have a wide variety of other ideas, all of them intriguing but many of them also problematic. The most substantive one is the idea of time banks, a concept that isn’t very new — a kind of service-bartering system, it was propounded in 1995 by the late Edgar S. Cahn, a law professor and the co-founder of Antioch College law school. Cahn believed, quite simply, that capitalist countries overvalued money and undervalued time. This could be addressed by the establishment of “time credits,” which citizens could provide in one-hour increments to others who need help, and in return receive an equivalent gift of free time to use for recreation or other desired purposes.

Time banks now exist in 34 countries, with as many as 400 in the United States alone. There is no question that they have been a useful tool in providing health care, transportation or sometimes child care to the needy or physically challenged. But this doesn’t seem like an even exchange. The ones who receive the initial help often get something they desperately require. The able-bodied or less-challenged providers get a grant of free hours they can often do perfectly well without. I can accept time banks as a valuable instrument of community social service. It’s hard to see them in their broader context as a step toward placing time on the same pedestal where we place money.

PERHAPS THE ULTIMATE POINT is that time reform depends less on formal governmental action than on the personal willingness of humans to change their habits. Neither Barcelona nor any other city can move toward an earlier closing time for bars and restaurants unless the residents decide that their long-term health might depend on it. Televised warnings may help to spread the message. They certainly have worked to deter smoking and drunk driving in this country. But my suspicion is that the use of time, varying as it does from country to country, is a deeply ingrained cultural trait that will be frustratingly difficult to refashion.

Except, perhaps, when an unexpected global crisis forces people to order their lives differently. In some important ways, the coronavirus has done this. The dramatic increase in remote work has meant a substantial rethinking of the use of ordinary time. Middle-class business workers have saved considerable time formerly devoted to commuting, and have the option (or the burden) of figuring out how to use the minutes they have retrieved. Mothers who no longer trudge back and forth to an office have more time to spend with their children (but also, in many cases, an inability to be free of children’s demands when they want or need that). Perhaps time banks can help straighten all this out. That would be a significant step forward.

But the bottom line is that the vast majority of us will reform our use of time when we want to, not when we are told to. If a global pandemic can move our choices in a healthy direction, that is something we might dare to call a small silver lining.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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