Someone recently asked me whether I thought people in England drive too fast. The question took me by surprise because, no, with but a few notable exceptions people in the UK do not drive fast. It probably isn’t for a lack of a speedy impulse but for the restrictions UK traffic calming measures impose.
Yes, the UK keeps traffic slow through the use of ubiquitous speed cameras, speed bumps, winding roads that twist and double back for no discernible reason, one-lane two-way roads, and lines of parked cars on both sides of all public roadways. (Yes, there are motorways, but I rarely see one.)
All this combines to make travel in the UK quite slow indeed. It is a cliché to say that Americans think 200 years is a long time and Brits think 200 miles is a long way, but it became a cliché because it’s true. In the US, I would generally estimate my arrival time by allowing one minute for each mile. If I needed to travel 15 miles, I would allow 15 minutes (20 minutes if it was important enough to have a few extra minutes). In the UK, 15-mile trips regularly take 45 minutes or more, even without major traffic disruptions. A 200-mile trip is not something to be taken lightly.
For the most part, Brits are patient and courteous in traffic, taking turns and letting one another pass in a fairly equitable arrangement. You occasionally run into a rude and selfish driver, of course, but it isn’t the rule. Brits will tell you they are known for their ability to queue (stand in line) in an orderly, polite, and efficient manner.
If they are better at standing in queues than other cultures, it must be because they have so many opportunities to do so. Queues abound, and they are not famous for moving quickly. Things generally move faster in the US—except the post office. I typically get in and out of the post office much faster in the UK than in the US.
Life in the UK is mostly slower than what I’ve been used to, and I like it that way almost all the time. Sometimes the American in me breaks out and I get exasperated with pointless waiting, but every American has to be an ugly one from time to time, even if we are trying to dispel stereotypes.
Of course, Brits can lose their patience, too, when pushed too far. And that’s what Northern Rail has done. By making everyone late to absolutely everything, Brits in the northwest now have to rush around all the time, getting a taste of the American goal of always shaving a few minutes off travel time and being perpetually irritable. Surely, something will have to be done.