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UK Transport System and How It Compares With the USA

Updated on February 08, 2017
Nathanville profile image

My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history, and how they project to today's Societies.

Dovercourt railway station, in Essex, England, serving a local population of about 17,000.
Dovercourt railway station, in Essex, England, serving a local population of about 17,000.

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Perceptions are Subjective

Although lots of statistics are freely available, trying to make direct comparisons of the different modes of passenger transport systems between America and Britain is surprisingly difficult, and often subjective.

My interest in this subject largely stems from:-

  • My involvement in innovative and cutting edge technology from the early 1990s in managed motorways in England, and
  • My shock in learning from Americans on social media how underdeveloped their passenger train system is.

Therefore, my main aim in this article is to identify and highlight:-

  • Various aspects of the British integrated transport system,
  • The apparent differences between America and Britain, and
  • Some of the pros and cons.

Whether a transport system is considered good or bad, or viewed as being better or worse in one country than another, tends to be rather subjective. It's all very much dependent on a person's perspective; which is often influenced by their own personal experiences (including travel costs) of using public transport.

There are plenty of British people who will rubbish the train service in Britain (mainly because of costs), but on viewing comments from Americans on YouTube, many rave on how good the UK passenger rail system is.

The biggest surprise to me is the sheer volume of public transport available in Britain compared to America; in spite of the fact that Britain is a much smaller country with a smaller population. The landmass of the USA is 40 times bigger than the UK, and its population is five times greater; 318.9 million people live in America compared with just 64.1 million people in Britain.

Main Modes of Passenger Transport

Car is without a doubt the main mode of passenger transport in both America and Britain, but that is where the similarity ends.

It’s impossible to make an exact comparison because official statistics in both countries are compiled differently. For example, although car is by far the most popular mode of transport, for some reason the UK government statistics lump both cars and taxis together in the same figure; I assume because of the sheer number of taxis on local roads, and the difficulty in separating the two when gathering the raw data.

Nevertheless, the available information (summarised below) paints an intriguing picture.

Modes of Transport in USA

Mode of Transport
% of Passenger Use
Car, truck and motorcycle
80%
Air
12%
Bus
6%
Rail
<1%
Others
<1%

Modes of Transport in UK

Modes of Transport
% of Passenger Use
Car and Taxi
83%
Rail
10%
Bus and Coach
5%
Bicycle
1%
Air
1%
Others
<1%
Nationally, in descending order of use (% rounded to nearest whole number)

The above tables gives the overall figures, which includes both local and long distance travel. Obviously for short journeys people will be more inclined to walk or cycle, and less likely to fly or use the train e.g.in America 10% of local journeys are by foot, and 1% by bike.

In Britain these days buses tend to be used more for short journeys, and trains for the longer journeys. Although there was a time when trains and trams used to be as popular as buses for local urban travel. However, many of the tram systems were destroyed by the blitz during the 2nd world war, and in the mid-1960s the Conservative (Capitalist) Government axed most of the railway's Branch Lines.

A Branch Line being a railway line that branches off from the main (artery) rail network to provide a network of local stations linking local communities. In the cities and towns there use to be railway stations every few miles. This was popular because it was convenient to just hop on and off of local trains to nip to the shopping centre or a neighbouring town. Following the closure of these lines, many (like the one in Staple Hill, Bristol, near where I live) have since been converted to cycle tracks.

Although interestingly the Conservative Government have, in the last seven years, embarked on revitalising the railway network with numerous rail infrastructure projects; including the successful 'Cross Rail' link and the controversial 'High Speed' link.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The old branch line railway station in Staple Hill, Bristol, now converted to a cycle track.How the local railway station in Staple Hill, Bristol  looked back in the 1960s.
The old branch line railway station in Staple Hill, Bristol, now converted to a cycle track.
The old branch line railway station in Staple Hill, Bristol, now converted to a cycle track.
How the local railway station in Staple Hill, Bristol  looked back in the 1960s.
How the local railway station in Staple Hill, Bristol looked back in the 1960s.

London Transport

In many ways London (the Capital of England) is comparable to New York in that:-

  • They’re both large metropolitan cities.
  • They have a similar sized population (London with 8.5 million, and New York City with 8.4 million).
  • Both have an underground rail system, and
  • New York has its ‘Yellow Taxi Cab’, while London has the ‘Black Cab’.

However, when it comes to transportation, that’s where the similarities may end; in that London has a sophisticated integrated transport system which even the rest of the UK can only aspire to.

Transport for London (A Government Department)

The success of the London Transport system lay with the government’s policy of ‘Integrated Transport’. The integrated system comprises a wide variety of public and private transport services, all coordinated by the ‘Transport for London’ (a Government Department). This includes the London Underground, rail links, buses, taxis, public bicycles, airport links and river services.

London's famous for its Underground (the oldest in the world), but recent innovations which have also proved successful includes:-

  • The Boris Bike, which people can hire for a nominal fee, and
  • The Oyster Card (use on most modes of transport in London) which provides cheap travel

Both of these are covered in more detail below.

Philosophy of the Transport for London

London's Underground

The London Underground (aka London Tube), first opened in 1863, is so vast that it doesn't matter where you are in London you are sure to be within five minutes’ walk of a Tube Station. Once on the Underground, with trains arriving every couple of minutes, you can get across London within about half an hour.

London Underground vs New York Subway

 
London Tube
New York Subway
Overall route length
250 miles
236 miles
Number of stations
270
472
Number of daily rides
4.8 million
5.7 million

The London Underground is comparable with the New York Subway in terms of route length and passenger usage; albeit the New York Subway seems to have significantly more stations.

The other observation I made is that the New York subway goes in two direction; Uptown and Downtown. Whereas the London Underground criss-crosses across London in four directions; north/south and east/west; with the circular line linking all lines together so you can easily navigate in any direction.

How To Use The London Underground

The Boris Bike

One popular imitative by the previous London Mayor was the introduction of the Boris Bike; 10,000 bikes for hire from a network of 700 bicycle stations across central London.

If you fancy cycling rather than walking you can simply hire a Boris Bike for a nominal fee; and when you've finished, just return it to the nearest bicycle station.

How to Hire a Bike in London

The Oyster Card

The other great advantage of the London transport system is that (apart from perhaps taxis) it’s relatively cheap; especially if you use an Oyster Card.

The Oyster Card (introduced by Transport for London in 2003), which guarantees the cheapest fare for any journey, is accepted on most modes of London transport.

In comparison with London, most public transport across the rest of the UK is privately owned, often underfunded, usually less reliable, and invariably more expensive.

Cheap Travel With the Oyster Card

London Transport Infrastructure

The Transport for London coordinates the London transport system. However, both the British Government and the Mayor of London have major input in policy making and investment in infrastructure; sometimes in partnership with the private sector.

Examples of government policy making and investment in recent years includes:-

  • Significant (and ongoing) expansion of the London Underground, and
  • Building the Crossrail Link, a major infrastructure project for a rail network link across London (under the city streets); to further integrate the London rail system and Underground into the national rail network.

Crossrail Explained In 2 Minutes

The Road Network

There are a number of major differences between American and British roads, not just the way they are funded and the obvious that American roads (and cars) are bigger, but also how they’re used, and the various speed limits.

In this section I aim to initially highlight some of those differences, and then provide a detailed overview of roads in the UK to help you make your own comparison. By doing so I hope to generate some positive feedback in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

American Roads

Mainly from watching American films on TV, the common perception in Britain of American roads is that:-

  • Gridlocks are common in major cities because of the problems caused by Intersections.
  • The different types of roads is confusing e.g. highways, interstate and freeways etc., and
  • The National speed limit is only 50mph?

How Does This Compare With Britain?

We don’t get gridlocks in Britain because we use roundabouts in preference to intersections, although during the rush hour traffic jams aren’t uncommon; especially when there’s an accident.

Also in Britain roads are classified in simple terms:-

  • Motorways
  • A Roads, and
  • B Roads

Motorways are financed, built and maintained by the British Government. An A Road (unless it’s classified as a Trunk Road) and B roads are financed, built and maintained by the appropriate Local Authority (local government). A Roads classified as Trunk Roads are the responsibility of the British Government, who uses the same technology on them as they do on motorways for managing traffic flow and safety.

UK Speed Limits

Although the 50mph speed limit in America may be a misconception, when I tried looking it up on the Internet the different regulations, governing different speed limits for different types of vehicles, on different roads, in different States, was just confusing.

In Britain it’s quite straightforward, the maximum speed limits are:-

  • 70mph on motorways, unless otherwise reduced by ‘variable speed signs’; often used to slow traffic down before it reaches an incident (accident) so long queues don't build up while the incident is being dealt with.
  • 30mph in urban areas (unless its a dual carriageway); although local councils (local government) can and do opt to reduce this to 20mph as part of their ‘traffic calming’ schemes, and
  • 60mph on dual carriageways and all rural roads (including single track country lanes).

An American Driving in the UK

British Roads

Motorways

As far as I can determine the Freeway in America is the nearest equivalent to a motorway in the Britain?

A motorway is a stretch of road, usually three lanes in each direction (plus a hard shoulder); on motorways:-

  • Pedestrians, bicycles, and any vehicle which can't do 60mph are prohibited.
  • It's illegal to stop, unless you breakdown, and
  • Reversing or doing a U-turn are also illegal.

If you do breakdown on a motorway you should:-

  • Move your vehicle onto the hard shoulder,
  • Vacate the vehicle and stand on the verge well away from the traffic,
  • Call for help on a mobile or from one of the emergency road side phones, and
  • Wait for assistance.

With Britain being much smaller than America there’s only 2,173 miles of Motorway in England. However, the entire motorway network is under constant surveillance from 1,750 live CCTV motorway traffic cameras, and other clever technology.

Constant surveillance of the motorway network helps to identify problems and take swift action e.g. by using variable speed signs to control traffic flow, or to call out emergency services to deal with accidents. With the foresight to lay down optic fibre cables along all motorways in the 1980s, Smart Motorway Management (in operation since the 1990s) has proved effective in minimising delays and reducing travel time.

If you do breakdown on the motorway, even if you don't phone for help yourself, you can be sure you’re plight will be picked up by one of the CCTV cameras and that a rescue vehicle will quickly come to your aid.

The motorway network connects all the major towns and cities together. Motorways run through the centre of cities; giving the driver the option to either carry straight on without stopping or slowing, or to take the slip road (junction) to the city centre. The exception being the M25 which is a glorified 117 mile long ring road encircling London.

Accident Impact on British Motorways

A Roads

A Roads, which includes dual carriageways, are all the main roads regardless to whether they are within an urban area or in the countryside. If they are within an urban area and they're not a trunk road, then the maintenance is the responsibility of the Local Authority (local government); otherwise, its the National Government who's responsible for their upkeep.

A Roads can be either one or two lanes in each direction; largely (but not always) dependant on density of traffic flow.

A dual carriageway, often a straight stretch of road between two roundabouts in a city, is an A road; usually two lanes of traffic in each direction. The main difference between a dual carriageway and other A roads is that pedestrians are discouraged from using it e.g. the dual carriageway is fenced off from any side roads and there's no paths (sidewalks). Although, unlike a motorway, its not illegal to walk on or cross a dual carriageway; just very dangerous.

The main purposes of dual carriageways is to:-

  • Aid unimpeded fast flowing traffic through sections of an urban area; and
  • As a ring road around the outskirts of cities and towns.

Consequently, unlike other urban roads (which are restricted to 30mph), the speed limit on dual carriageways is always 60mph.

B Roads

B Roads are all the minor roads within the city and town, and in the countryside.

They can be one lane in each direction, but in some older towns (especially places like Cornwall) and in the countryside B roads are often just a single lane for two-way traffic.

Single lane roads in the countryside have passing points at periodical intervals. So if you're on a single lane country road, and meet a car coming towards you, one or other of you will have to reverse to the nearest passing point. Fortunately, as traffic volume is low on country roads this isn’t a major problem.

How Not to Reverse on a Country Road

This is How it Should be Done

UK Roundabouts vs USA Intersections

Roundabouts are the norm in Europe so I was surprised to learn that they’re not common in America; where instead the Intersection is normal.

British cities don’t have the ‘Avenues’ and ‘Streets’ grid system, so we don’t get the grid lock that seems so common on America busy streets during peak traffic. Albeit we may get traffic jams during the rush hour, especially if there’s an accident.

Roads in British cities and towns never go in straight lines, they curve all-over the place and come from all directions; often merging on the city or town centre. Therefore it’s quite normal for five or six, or even more roads to meet at a roundabout.

There is one simple golden rule that keeps roundabouts running smoothly, and hence maintains traffic flow. in Britain, where we drive on the left, that golden rule is :-

  • Always give way to traffic on the right.

Obviously, in America (and most of the rest of the world) where people drive on the right, its the opposite e.g. on roundabouts, give way to traffic on the left.

By following this golden rule you avoid collisions, while at the same time ensuring traffic from all directions continue to filter onto the roundabout, without any undue delay. If you’re not familiar with roundabouts it might sound crazy, but they are effective. Even putting a mini-roundabout on a busy T junction allows cars to filter into the main flow of traffic with the minimal of delay.

Therefore in my mind there is no doubt that roundabouts are far superior to Intersections.

Swindon's 'Magic Roundabout'

Public Road Transport

Buses

In Britain bus is the most common mode of public road transport in urban areas; albeit outside of London it can be rather expensive, and the service isn’t always as reliable as it could be.

Although generally, bus companies (as with most forms of public transport these days) are run by the ‘private sector’ they have to be licensed by the Local Authority (Local government) before they can operate; thus avoiding a free for all. It also gives Local Authorities control in setting minimum standards of service, and provides them with the means to co-ordinate the bus service with other modes of transport; as part of their ‘Integrated Transport’ policy.

As part of the ‘Integrated Transport’ system, to avoid the risk of getting stuck in traffic by driving into the city centre, you have the option of using the ‘Park and Ride’; large car parks on the outskirts of cities, from where you can catch a bus straight into the city or town centre.

In conjunction with 'Park and Ride', to aid the bus journey, most of the busy traffic routes in cities and large towns have 'bus only' lanes; which taxis, motorbikes and cyclists are also permitted to use.

Intercity Coaches in Britain vs America

My understanding is intercity coaches in America are used more widely than the train service, as supported by the stats which shows less than 1% of American passengers travel by rail.

Whereas in Britain, unlike America, intercity coaches are underused because of the popularity of the railway; in spite of the fact that the coach service is cheap, reliable, comfortable, and efficient.

I have used coaches a few times in the past to get to London, and I've been very impressed with the service. Nevertheless, if we are not using the car, then my first choice is train rather than coach, simply because its faster; albeit a lot more expensive.

Taxis in Britain vs America

In spite the American population being much larger Britain, when researching this subject, I was surprised to learn that there are fewer licensed taxis in America; even in New York. Below (according to official figures) is the number of taxis in the USA and UK. These figures don't include the number of licensed taxi drivers themselves, which would obviously be significantly higher.

 
Licensed Taxis
Yellow/Black Cabs
USA (outside New York)
193,900
 
UK (outside of London)
179,730
 
New York
40,000
13,000
London
62,270
22,500
Yellow Cabs in New York, and Black Cabs in London.

As with buses and other types of public transport, taxis in Britain are licensed by the Local Authority (local government).

Taxis in Britain aren’t cheap, but with strict drink and drive laws in the UK, they are popular; and they do provide a good service when needed.

Outside of London, in the city/town centre, at airports and train stations, there's always taxi ranks where you can queue. Anywhere else, you can either pre-book a taxi, or phone for one when needed and then what up to 20 minutes for it to arrive.

In London, it’s very much like New York; you just stick your hand out and a taxi pulls up. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s quite a strange feeling how they just seem to appear out of nowhere as soon as you put your hand out.

A significant difference between a Yellow Cab driver in New York, who can get their licence within two weeks, and Black Cab driver in London, is the qualifying requirements. To become a London Black Cab driver you have to pass a stringent test, called 'The Knowledge'; which usually takes at least four years study, with a failure rate of 95%.

London Taxis

Passenger Train Service

In the USA trains account for less than 1% of travel; in sharp contrasts with the UK where its over 10%. Second to only the car, in America flying is by far the most popular choice for intercity travel; whereas in Britain (in spite of its cost) it's the train.

However, in Britain the train service is a political hot potato:-

  • In the late 1940s it was nationalised by the Socialist Labour Government following their landslide victory in 1945 general election. A nationalised company is a company that is owned and run by the government.
  • In the early 1990s (apart from London Transport) it was privatised by the Conservative (capitalist) Government.
  • In 2003, following the collapse of Railtrack, the rail network (the rail tracks and stations) part of the service was taken back into public ownership by the Labour Government.
  • Current, Labour policy, for when they return to power, is to renationalise the rail service; most probably by not renewing the train operators franchises as they expire.

When nationalised, it was great. I used it quite frequently because I could travel from Bristol to London and return on a daytrip with the fare costing no more than a takeaway meal; but those days are long since gone.

Since privatisation the fares have sky rocketed, with private companies and their shareholders creaming off the profits rather than re-investing in the service.

When it was privatised, the rail service was split into two components:-

  • The rail network, as one company, to maintain the tracks and stations, and
  • The trains, which were divided into competing franchises (currently 23); with the idea being that healthy competition would drive down prices and improve efficiency.

These days, because of the high rail fares, I only use the rail service when absolutely necessary; albeit I will still use it in preference to coach (even though the coach is cheaper), simply because train is quicker.

From Bristol to London the journey time (and ‘return’ fare), using different modes of transport is:-

  • Coach, two and a half hours and costs about £10 ($15) return.
  • Air, 2 hours, and costs about £53 ($65).
  • Train, only 90 minutes, but costs £70 ($100) for a return ticket.

The only good news from my view point is that, although the train services are privately run under franchise, at least the rail tracks themselves are now back under government ownership.

Following the collapse of Railtrack in 2001, Network Rail (Government Department) was created to manage the rail network. Consequently since Network Rail took over there’s been significant investment in the maintenance and expansion of the railway network infrastructure. As with all Government Departments, they're non-profit making, so any income they earn is re-invested in the network rather than going to share holders.

The great thing about the train service in the UK is that, with high speed trains, and because the rail network is so comprehensive, you can get from just about any part of Britain to anywhere else in the country relatively quickly.

Is it Time to Renationalise Britain's Railways?

Ghost Trains in Britain

Where a small section of track has gone into disuse due to a lack of passenger demand a private train Operator will often run one train on that line at least once a week; as a means to keep the line open, rather than it being decommissioned.

Such services are known as Ghost Trains.

Although ‘Ghost Trains’ are run at the Company’s expense, it protects the line by preventing government closure and decommissioning; and it leaves options open for the Train Operator to reinvigorate the service in the event of future renewed demand.

On Board a Real-Life 'Ghost Train'

How the UK Train Service Compares With the USA

What amazes me, when I compare the rail network and passenger train services across the whole of America and Britain, is the startling fact that the number of passenger journeys in Britain is phenomenally greater. Startling, when you consider how much smaller the UK is to the USA; albeit within London and New York themselves, their respective underground train services are comparable.

Railway Passenger Journeys and Distance Per Year

 
USA
UK
Passenger Journeys
30.8 million
1.69 billion
Passenger Miles
6.4 billion
40 billion

In the USA there’s 233,000 miles of railroad track; compared to 21,000 miles in the UK; no surprise considering how much smaller Britain is. I’m not sure how many passenger trains or stations there are in America; but in Britain there’s over 4,000 trains serving 2,552 passenger stations.

The other interesting fact I came across is that American trains may not be as fast as in Europe, typically 200mph; but then neither is Britain’s. Since the introduction of the ‘InterCity 125’ in the 1970s British trains have been running at 125mph. Currently, the fastest train service in Britain is the Eurostar which links London to Paris and beyond, and runs at 186mph; total journey time from London to Paris being 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Although if the present Government continue with its controversial build of new high speed rail links across England, due for completion by 2033, then we can expect to start seeing new high-speed trains in Britain within a few years.

Walking and Cycling

Although most people prefer to use their car (even for short journeys), from what I've learned of America, walking and cycling for leisure is far less popular than in the UK.

In Brittan walking is popular, an activity that's actively encouraged by Local Authorities (local governments) on the grounds of ‘Health and Wellbeing’.

Sufficient provision of inner city ‘green space’ for leisure and recreation is a long standing part of government policy; regardless to which government is in power. So anywhere within any city (even London) you can be assured to be within five minutes’ walk of a green area e.g. park, woodlands, lake etc.

Cycle Tracks

Cycling is big in the UK, for getting to work and for leisure. Since the mid-1980s there’s been a massive growth in a network of cycle tracks, often off road (following old canal towpaths and redundant railway lines); and some even extending to link cities and towns.

In Bristol alone there are now over 11,545 cycling routes. The one I used to use for getting to work being the old Bristol to Bath railway line; which was decommissioned in the late 1960s and subsequently converted to a cycle track in 1984. It was great as I could cycle all the way from home to the office in the centre of Bristol without touching any of the roads, except for a few hundred yards at each end.

In fact, back in 1984 the Bristol and Bath Railway Path (a 15 mile cycleway) was the very first cycle track to open. Since then, the National Cycle Network has expanded to a whopping 14,000 mile network, which is used by cyclists to make over 230 million trips per year.

Air Travel

Like American, and elsewhere in the world, all major cities in Britain have airports, with Heathrow, London being the sixth busiest in the world. However, unlike America, where people seem to pop on and off of planes to travel interstate, few people in Britain travel inland by plane.

In theory, I could catch a plane from Bristol to London or anywhere in the UK; it can be a little cheaper than train, and once you’re on the plane might also bit quicker; although from Bristol to London it’s not.

However, like most people in Britain, I’ve never used a plane to travel around the UK; if I want to go somewhere, and we don’t go by car, then it's the train.

Ferries

Like in America, waterways in Britain don't play a major role in public transport; albeit we do have a sophisticated network of canals and rivers leftover from the days before railways.

Nevertheless, ferries do sometimes offer another mode of transport to some passengers. For example, in Bristol, as part of its ‘Integrated Transport’ policy, as well as the taxi rank and regular bus service from Temple Meads (one of Bristol's main railway stations) Bristol also has a regular ferry service running between Temple Meads and the city centre.

The Ferry Service from Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station to the centre of Bristol.
The Ferry Service from Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station to the centre of Bristol.

Ferry Service as Part of the Integrated Transport in Bristol

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