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Letter From The UK: Do We Even Need Our Cars?

Letter from the UK

Great Britain is a small country. In area it is smaller than some of the individual United States. Unlike the vast America continent, it is pretty straightforward to get around and, in the past, we have gloried in a transport system that could get you anywhere you wanted to go.

Public Transport In The UK

What did the ancient Romans do for us? Well, for a start, they developed a network of cobbled roads that criss-crossed the country. Even today we use those same roads except that now they exist as usually two-lane blacktops. Over the centuries we built on that.

Unlike America, where the establishment of the first transcontinental railway was a brave and complex engineering marvel, the UK, upon the invention of the railway engine, quickly established a rail network that went everywhere. No town was too small not to have a branch line and a bus service. As the Victorians of the 19th century built and established roads, and subsequently developed the vehicles to use them, we luxuriated in a State-owned public transport system that was second to none.

And in typical British fashion we proceeded to ruin it.

Us Versus Them

The 20th century brought with it a mighty rise in power of the various Trade Unions, and workers demanded more and more rights and money. Standing against them was a management class steeped in Victorian values: The result was a stalemate and decades of industrial strike action from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. We, the travellers, got used to it and carried on.

Because of this, the public transport infrastructure went rapidly downhill thanks to a combination of inept bosses, antiquated buses and rolling stock, dirty stations and terminals, and staff who could not give a damn. Like a man who is given a gun but has no idea how to use it, we shot ourselves in the foot. Repeatedly.

Then along came The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher.

colorful underground subway train with blurry PVBR3FK
According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than 6,800 organizations provide public transportation in the United States. In 2016, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on average. Research shows public transportation saves the U.S. 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually.


Our Prime Minister in the 1980’s decided what was needed was for the transport services to be sold off to the highest bidders. It would, she declared, encourage competition and thus cheaper prices. That didn’t work either. As soon as private money got their greedy mitts on the system, unprofitable rail lines and bus services were axed and the prices went up. Now we have a transport system targeted at working commuters, albeit with the latest vehicles, that many people simply cannot afford to use or cannot access because they live in the country or outlying areas.

What we needed was . . .

The Motor Car

We have a thriving car industry that spans the globe. No matter that Britain’s antiquated road system is riddled with potholes and in desperate need of investment, we still prefer to travel by car. The convenience of the automobile is unquestioned. Door-to-door; it doesn’t get any better than that. Cars are safer and more economical than ever. That’s a fact; but there’s a downside.

They are subject to taxation when we buy them, when we put them on the road, when we fill them with fuel, and when we insure them. The motorist is the UK government’s cash cow. Running a car today is a very expensive business here in broken Britain and by-and-large it has to be questioned whether we need the things at all. This writer loves to drive but it would be nice to be transported once in a while, especially when I see trains flash by as I sit in yet another traffic jam.

Certainly, people, the young especially, living in urban areas, are foreswearing the auto in favour of public transport. In and around our towns and cities, public transport is plentiful and, although quite pricey, is still cheaper than car ownership, backed up by services from Uber and the like. I can see their point.

Uber Passengers India
Uber passengers share a ride in India. Photo: Uber

Crossing The Country

The trouble is, I like to travel around and see new places. I once did an experiment. I calculated the cost and logistics of travelling between two places three hundred miles apart. Even pre-booking tickets for my wife and myself well in advance, the trip would have cost me three times the fuel and ancillary expenses had we travelled in our car. The car goes from door-to-door, public transport would have involved three train changes and a bus trip in both directions.

I think I’ve just answered my own question.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite