I just spent a week in England, visiting my family. It was great to be back. I had crumpets for breakfast, curry for lunch, and can report that English beer remains much tastier than Dutch beer. I enjoyed it very much, and even visiting it as a "foreigner" I found much to enjoy. It does help that my family live in one of the nicest corners of the country.
However, not everything is wonderful. I read in a newspaper while over there that the number of cars on Britain's roads have increased from just over 26 million in 2005 to more than 31 million in 2009, a rise of nearly 20% in just four years - a period only slightly longer than we've lived in the Netherlands. Considerable growth since the last time I looked at car ownership rates in Britain.
This growth was obvious on the roads themselves, and not only at school time, as in this photo, or rush hour. It didn't seem to matter what time of day or night it was, the roads had lots of cars on them. Often enough to cause a bit of a traffic jam, even at the most unlikely of times. For instance, we even found ourselves in a jam on the way to small a market town in the west country at 7 o'clock on a Sunday evening.
The UK's current transport secretary recently reminded us "that over 80% of all journeys are undertaken by car." He's absolutely right, and it will likely remain the case. It's the only means of transport which he, and the rest of the government, actually encourage in the UK at present. While it's not necessarily convenient due to the number of other motor vehicles on the roads, in very many cases it's the least bad option open to people.
I flew to Bristol and my mother came to meet me at the airport. As a pensioner, she is entitled to a free bus pass, so she left home in Burnham-on-Sea just after 2 pm to arrive over three hours later on the last bus to go to the airport from that direction. She covered 30 km in a fair bit over 3 hours, or an average of under 10 km/h.
I, on the other hand, left home in Assen somewhat after 3 pm, taking one of the regular trains (every 30 minutes) from Assen to Schiphol airport 200 km away in order to arrive a long time before the flight. I waited, got bored, bought a book, ate some food and eventually boarded the aeroplane and flew to Bristol Airport for 19:30. Just over four hours in all, and 800 km covered at an average of 200 km/h.
On the map: I started at A, my mother started at B and we met after comparable journey times at the white dot somewhat closer to B than to A.
In fact, transport remains a complete pain in England... unless you have a car. My original intention had been to make the entire journey between our home in Assen and my Mother's home in Burnham by public transport. However, while it's easy to cover the 200 km distance from Assen to Schiphol Airport (trains run every 30 minutes), it's not easy to cover the 30 km distance between Bristol Airport and Burnham on Sea. While my flight was to land at 19:30, the last bus running in the correct direction was the one my mother got off of at around 17:30, so I'd have had to find some other way of making the journey.
I checked out the other options and found nothing which wouldn't be expensive, take a long time and in at least one option would leave me waiting at a remote unmanned railway station at which I could easily miss the very last train of the evening. Not attractive at all as something to rely on, especially with the risk of delays. A taxi was an option, but it cost a good percentage of the price of a hire car for the week, so I arranged a hire car.
Having a hire car was interesting in itself. Naturally I picked the cheapest option available on the website, as they all do the same thing: roll along on four wheels at the speed of the same traffic jam, and the cheapest being the smallest it also is the most economical on offer.
However, the car was of interest to many people, who asked me the same question: "What hire car did you get ?" If it'd been "interesting" like the old Morris Minor at the top of this blog post perhaps I might have known what it was. There it is to the left, Small and blue. Not worth too large a photo. It worked well enough.
It seems to me that British people are on average rather more interested in cars than is good for them. In one sense this is understandable. On hearing that I normally drive rather infrequently, more than one person responded by saying that they "couldn't manage without a car". It's easy to see why people believe this, given the way the country's transport infrastructure is arranged. For many people it is genuinely difficult to imagine living without a car in the UK. Given the ubiquity of the car as the only way of getting about, it's perhaps also not surprising that the most popular TV programme in Britain is now the execrable Top Gear, the presenters of which, and presentation style of which, seem to have taken over many other BBC programmes.
I did a small amount of cycling myself, around Burnham on Sea where I lived with my family as a teenager. I used my father's old bike, and rode as I always did in the UK: "vehicularly" (as the American's put it). i.e. big and bold and taking the lane when I needed to. It's not particularly pleasant, and conditions which require such behaviour from cyclists lead to cycling only ever being a minority pursuit, as could be seen by the small amount of cycling in the area, and its domination by a young adult demographic. However, this is the only way to survive in such conditions. Few people see this as something they want their loved ones to do. It's part of the reason why 70% of the British population never ride a bicycle at all.
Burnham is still a nice little seaside town, but as it's in Britain it's also still a nice seaside town which is dedicated to cars. There's plenty of car parking, and while the area at the sea front is wide and could be quite pleasant to cycle along it is still out of bounds for cyclists. This photo shows the spot where on an out of season day in the 1980s, with almost no-one around, a teenager version of myself was assaulted by an angry local Conservative councillor who pushed me off my bike to uphold his personal idea of what "the law" ought to be.
The neighbouring towns of Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare are just 9 and 11 miles away (14 and 17 km) from Burnham. These are easy distances by bicycle in the Netherlands. Distances which many school children cycle to school and back again every day. However, not so in the UK. By bike, these neighbouring towns remain unreachable to any but the brave, as getting to them requires riding on narrow A-roads with 60 mph (100 km/h) speed limits and heavy traffic. Almost no-one ever makes such a journey of such a distance by bicycle. My mother, my sister and her teenage children have never done this. It's not safe by any definition.
Conditions for cyclists have not improved. Cycle paths remain almost non-existent, or very compromised in the few places where they do exist. Where on road cycle lanes exist, they remain narrow strips at the edge of the road which lead cyclists to ride through potholes while positioning themselves too far to the left around awkward "traffic calming" obstacles. Unsurprisingly, cyclists remain a very rare sight. Some youths cycle, and apart from that I saw a handful of utility cyclists (mostly riding the ubiquitous "mountain bikes") on the move during my week in England and three or four quite "serious" types on racing cycles.
On returning home I found out that the government in the UK has (as I mentioned in passing was likely a few weeks back) now decided to definitely scrap funding of Cycling England, the organisation in charge of promotion of cycling in the country, saving enough to build just 5 metres of motorway. The UK government instead seems to want to promote electric cars, the buyers of which are having their purchases subsidized. As ever, Britain is ignoring lessons from the Netherlands, even ones which you might think would fit in with the demands of Britain's pro-motoring policies, such as that encouraging cycling improves conditions for drivers.
And then there is the CCTV. There is masses of it, everywhere, on the streets, in shopping centres, in shops, all "for your safety" of course. Some of it even claims to make the town "brighter safer." Mind you, apparently the French are providing pretty good competition on installing CCTV these days.
Yes, there is even CCTV in the pub. But let's finish on a more positive note:
Brown, warm, completely non fizzy. The best beer in the world.
Veggie curry pub lunch.
Onion Bhajis and Mango Chutney.
I know it is counter to the reputation that many people think it deserves, but Britain is actually quite a good place to eat and drink.
A week or so later, it got worse. Read another post reflecting on the demise of "Cycling England."
Thanks to freewheeler for the tip about the Independent article. He also has more on the demolition of Cycling England. In case you're wondering, the ominous grey buildings in the middle of the blog post are Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is visible from the sea front at Burnham. Electric cars are the future, apparently, so expect more of these.