Red post boxes. Red telephone boxes. Red double decker buses. Fish and chips. Big Ben. The Upper Classes. The Working Classes. Crap tea. The list of things quintessentially English is far from exhaustive. But there is one other thing which has become quintessentially English and that is our public transport. One might go as far as to say that our public transport network is the backbone of Britain. And like every person’s spine, its state speaks reams about them.
It was living in London that made me realise to what extent buses and trains feature in the everyday lives and, very often, everynight lives of millions. But has the UK’s public transport become as entrenched in our nation’s culture and psyche as I think it has?
Living in a particularly grey part of London’s outskirts very close to Heathrow in a spot where the whole planet’s transportation routes seem to intersect – my room borders a main road and a bus route; I can see into Piccadilly Line tube carriages and would also be able to see into British Airways airplanes if I owned a cheap pair of binoculars – has made me even more aware of how it dominates our lives, insidiously. We are a tiny island by square miles. We are not such a tiny island by people. And so our landmass to transport infrastructure ratio necessarily means that public transport is never out of eye shot – in the urban areas at least.
The London Underground logo is a national icon in itself. And London Underground’s font – Johnson – is now seen all over Britain on all our road signs, not only throughout London’s tube and bus infrastructure.
Thomas the Tank Engine – no wonder he was a hit
If public transport had become the thing that British lives are now built around, it would not be surprising given the large percentage it makes up of many people’s weekly budget. A weekly travel card spanning but 2 zones is roughly £30 per week. A monthly rail pass with 30% knocked off for being a Young Person from Oxford to London costs the same as rent (approx £500 pcm). Even if one cycles to and from work (like I do), a single solitary outing into central London once a week is over £5 there and back. And while it would be nice to cycle everywhere, the distances and timing (not mention the sweat, dirt and danger of death) involved, don’t make it a viable form of transport all the time, especially if we want to arrive at our destination wearing something smart.
Summer of 2006 was spent in a beautiful summer haze of UV paint, friends and dance music – one thing the Brits know how to do well. I began to appreciate that the long haul commutes across London prior to the party and after the party to the next party were part of the night itself. It was a mini-adventure or mini-hell: deciphering bus stops in remote parts of the city you had never visited before, hot, labyrinthine underground passages changing tube lines and unsympathetic meandering in the drizzle in the cold, harsh and unforgiving light of day. There was even a short a time when drugs wraps were fashioned out of London Underground maps. Trips up to Birmingham to sample the Brummie rave scene meant we had to branch out onto National Rail.
Another national quirk is the consumption of alcohol – on the train. It is incredibly normal to see a variety of types of people drinking cannies on trains, whatever their reason for travelling and at any hour of the day. The very fact one is on a train forgives morning time drinking. It’s a silently agreed upon social norm. The more edified traveller may opt for some wine drunk out of plastic cups or a pre-mixed canned Gin & Tonic. It is also forgiveable to consume wine from the bottle if the bottle is already open, it is a Saturday night and one has a long wait at Reading station. Another perk of being a Brit.
The worst hangover of my life happened last week. Because I was feeling so diabolical, that was when the spanner in the works of the commute decided to happen – cycling would have been too risky given my then blurred state of mental dexterity. I got caught short on the bus at the Oyster card reader with no money on my card. The driver duly filled out an Unpaid Fare Notice (a beautifully old-fashioned looking chit printed on fade yellow card) by hand and I was free to choose my seat and get surrounded by school children full of the high spirits that precede the end of term. Paying off the Unpaid Fare (and a host of other problems I have to solve regarding my Oyster card) involved a large number of attempted calls to TFL over the holiday period and lots of effort trying to figure out which options to follow via answering machine. Confusion, wasted time and circuitous routes: Transport For London’s brand values apply to its customer service as well as its routes.
Our train system in unapologetically chaotic and sloppy, but the beauty of taking the train in Britain is being able to turn up at a station, buy a ticket and jump on. The freedom to take such transport everywhere at no moment’s notice is perhaps another reason why The Commute has etched its way into our cultural identity. As much as Cape Town for me is pretty near heaven on earth, the lack of public transport and needing a car to go anywhere is terrible. I may have been born a Cape Tonian, but I have by now acquired the English expectation that freedom of movement by mediocre public transport is a human right.
An advantage of having National Rail as one of our National Treasures is that it provides an infinite supply of fodder for complaining – yet another indelible British attribute that has brought and continues to bring Brits together under all circumstances. Britons needs mediocrity and complaining, otherwise we would become exhausted from exchanging politeness and pleasantries.
So next time the train in delayed or cancelled, crack open a Carling and get moaning to the person standing beside you.