In my opinion, the best thing about travel is seeing how other cultures do things differently. And so in many respects, visiting mainland Europe was an eye-opener. It may only be separated from the UK by a small body of water, but in many ways, western and central Europe are far more progressive than we are. And one of the key differences I noticed was the public transport system. So what exactly was different?
In case you weren’t aware, public transport in the UK is expensive. We have the highest train fares in Europe, for example. Since the railways were privatised, ticket prices have shot up and the quality of the services has worsened considerably.
Buses too keep getting more and more expensive. I learned this the hard way when I was no longer eligible for a student discount. I lived in a small town in Wiltshire for a few months, and it cost £4 for a single to a larger town which was just a few miles away. At the time, I had virtually no money coming in, and I would walk over a mile to the train station (where I could use my railcard, and the journey took just five minutes – provided there were no delays, which there often were), rather than using the bus stop which was right outside my house.
Being used to high prices, my boyfriend and I had planned to walk almost everywhere whilst travelling. But disaster struck when I managed to trip and sprain my ankle in Paris. We’d booked a coach for the next day, but the coach station was a 40-minute walk from our Airbnb, and I could barely walk at all.
When we looked at public transport, we found we’d need to get the metro and then a tram. My first thought was, “That’s going to be expensive.” Not so. At the metro station, we found that singles were just €1.90, no matter where you were going.
Compare that to the Tube in London, where single can cost up to £6 if you don’t have an Oyster card (and even if you do, it still costs several pounds). In Barcelona too, metro tickets were €2.20 – far cheaper than the Tube.
Another thing we discovered whilst buying Paris metro tickets was that the singles weren’t just valid on the metro – they could be used on trams and buses too. Incredulously, we bought two each. So the whole journey cost just €3.80 each.
Wherever we went, we found the same flexibility, with tickets valid on almost all forms of public transport. Yes, an Oyster card gives you more flexibility in London, but not everyone has one – especially if they only come to London occasionally, or are only there for a short time. And other UK towns and cities have nothing of the kind.
One of the reasons why the UK falls short in this area may be that we simply have less choice of public transport. London is the only city with a metro system, and trams are a rarity here; I had never been on one before going to the Continent, and I’m only aware of a couple of cities here that have them. So buses are really the only option for getting around within a town.
I really can’t understand why we don’t have trams in the UK. They’re clean, efficient, reliable and surely cheaper to install and run than a metro system. We used trams the most in Montpellier, and I was blown away by them. The network covered almost the whole city, and the longest we ever had to wait for one was nine minutes. They ran from the early hours of the morning until 1 a.m., so almost 24 hours a day. And of course, they were very reasonably priced.
We were disheartened to find that the beach was several miles from where we were staying, but of course there was a tram to take us most of the way. My favourite thing about the Montpellier trams was their colourfulness – the ones going towards the coast had starfish and octopus tentacles, and the ones going past our window were covered in brightly coloured flowers! That made it easier to make sure we got on the right one, too.
Colourful trams in Montpellier
One thing we noticed in Montpellier was how quiet the roads were. At times, there were virtually no cars – just buses and trams. With such a cheap and efficient public transport system, why would people drive?
That made the whole place quieter and more peaceful. The air was cleaner, and I didn’t feel like I was breathing in petrol fumes. And the buildings looked cleaner too.
What can we learn from Europe?
Currently, public transport in the UK is typically slow, expensive and not comprehensive enough. As a result, many people choose to drive if they have the option. That leads to horrendous congestion in cities and rampant air pollution which kills an estimated 40,000 people per year.
There are some pretty obvious lessons to be learnt here. If public transport is good and affordable, people will use it – and everyone will benefit. It’s also far better for the planet.
Currently, the UK government is happy to build new roads but shows little enthusiasm for improving public transport. This needs to change. If continental Europe can do it, I don’t see why we can’t too. And there are many other industrialised nations that could learn from this as well.
Where do you live, and what is public transport like there? I’d love to hear from you.