Consequently, the UK has one of the most congested and ill-planned transport systems in Europe (exacerbated by the disastrous rail privatisation, which has driven even more people onto the roads). However, it isn’t always essential to own a car in the UK, particularly if you live in a large town or city with adequate public transport (and where parking may be impossible, in any case). On the other hand, if you live in a remote village or a town away from the main train and bus routes, it’s usually essential to have your own transport. Public transport is cheaper if you’re able to take advantage of the wide range of discount, combination (e.g. rail, bus, underground and ferry), season and off-peak tickets available.
The UK’s transport ‘system’ is heavily weighted in favour of road transport and the level of public transport subsidies in the UK is among the lowest in Europe, e.g. in the European Union few countries invest less per head of population on their railways. Despite more people using public transport in London than in any other European city (London has the world’s largest rail and tube network), it has the most expensive public transport of any capital city in Europe, with fares around four times those of Rome and some 15 times more expensive than Budapest. The percentage of travellers using public transport is, not surprisingly, very low, with some 90 per cent of all journeys made by car.
The poor services and high cost of public transport have made a huge contribution to the heavy road congestion, with traffic levels in the south-east and other heavily populated areas approaching saturation point. Apart from the environmental damage caused by the ever increasing number of cars, road congestion costs businesses billions of pounds a year which, when added to the cost of road accidents, suggests a huge commercial benefit would be reaped from improved public transport. Many cities and counties promote the use of public transport instead of private cars, although trying to encourage people to travel by public transport has met with little success. One of the biggest problems facing the UK is that it’s much cheaper to run a car than it is to use the railways. Most analysts believe the situation must be reversed if the UK isn’t to suffer almost permanent gridlock in its major cities in the next decade or so.
Traffic polution in the UK
Rising levels of traffic pollution are choking the UK’s cities, where asthma and other bronchial complaints (which are aggravated by exhaust fumes) have increased hugely in recent years. Many experts believe the only answer is to pedestrianise town centres and severely limit traffic in towns and cities (as is done in many European countries), while at the same time investing heavily in non-polluting public transport systems. Although the UK killed off its trams (which in mainland Europe still perform an excellent role midway between a bus and a train) many years ago, a number of cities have introduced (or are planning to) new metro, light rail transit and supertram systems, and are banning cars from city centres. London has recently introduced a ‘congestion charge’ of £8 for vehicles using the central zone and this has already reduced traffic density and shortened journey times; it’s likely that the zone to which the charge applies will soon be enlarged to include parts of west London.
A wealth of information is published by national and local public transport companies, local and county councils, and regional transport authorities, most of which provide a wide range of passes and fares for travellers. Many regions offer combined bus, train, underground (metro) and ferry passes, and offer special rates for children, students, young people, pensioners, families, the unemployed and those receiving social security benefits, in addition to off-peak travel reductions. Students can obtain an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), offering travel discounts in the UK and worldwide.
A guide to public transport (land, sea and air) for disabled people entitled Door to Door is available online from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (www.dptac.gov.uk/door-to-door). Other useful books include, Out and About, a travel and transport guide for the elderly published by Age Concern, and the Guide for the Disabled Traveller (Automobile Association). If you find it difficult to use public transport, because of frailty or a disability, you should enquire whether your local council operates a ‘dial-a-ride’ or ‘book-a-ride’ service for residents. Free or reduced travel passes are available in most areas for senior citizens, the blind and the disabled, and many transport authorities publish information leaflets for disabled travellers.
Although primarily intended for tourists, Getting About Britain, is a useful guide to public transport services and fares for the independent traveller (www.gettingaboutbritain.com).
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.