Jump to content

Some Thoughts on Life in the US and the UK

Recommended Posts

Hello all! It's been much too long since I've posted or participated, strangely enough my time during COVID lockdown was somehow busier than before. The wife and I just moved back to Alexandria, VA after three years living in rural England. The three years went by much too quickly, and the year-plus in a COVID-stricken world made the last third a bit more lackluster than we otherwise would have liked (though we did get to know the local public footpaths better than we ever would have expected, but more on those later). Anyway, I just wanted to share some observations on life, infrastructure, the built environment, and development, comparing and contrasting my experiences living in the US and the UK. I'll go by topic, in no particular order. I'm sure I'll add more as I think of it, too.

Property Rights and Public Rights of Way:
This was something that took some getting used to. England, Scotland, an Wales all have different rules when it comes to public access to otherwise private lands, but all-in-all it's much more open than it is in the United States. In England, public rights of way other than roads (footpaths, bridleways, or byways) crisscross the countryside, and farmland is often open to public use so long as crops, livestock, equipment, or othe property isn't damaged or disturbed. For instance, from the village we lived in, there were about five different footpaths that radiated out of the village, other than the roads that connected it to the main highway and surrounding population centers. These footpaths provided a much-appreciated method of getting outdoors, as well as encouraging walking by providing safe, well marked pedestrian paths to neighboring towns and villages that was significantly closer than following roads. These footpaths are considered public rights of way, and hold a similar legal access status to a main road, but still being on private land. Usually they are ancient pathways that have existed in some cases for hundreds of years, when the concept of individual land holdings was a little mushier than it is now, and they are fiercely defended by locals and government alike...the Parish Council meetings following the non-approved closure of a footpath by a developer who bought a farm were quite interesting. It's not uncommon to have a footpath simply cross a pasture full of cattle, sheep, or horses. And you're expected to cross fence lines at marked gates or ladders, close all gates behind you, stick to the path, and not bother the livestock. Got a dog with you that you didn't have on a leash and it chased a sheep? Well, if the farmer sees it happen it's very likely to have an unhappy ending via the farmer's shotgun. And it's on you...no court will see a case of someone suing a farmer for shooting a dog that was bothering livestock. And no court will see a case of someone who got hurt because they were being stupid. This access though is limited to using it to transit. You're generally prohibited from camping or loitering along footpaths without the landowner's consent. This wide ranging access is enabled by a less litigious society and a court system that doesn't reward dumb behavior.  In Scotland, it's much more open, with a well ingrained right to wander. Unless specifically prohibited by regularly posted signage, all land is open for individuals to transit across, and if that transit means you have to pitch a tent for the night, so be it. But, Scotland is also MUCH less densely populated than England. The population is mostly gathered in villages, towns, and cities, with vast, unspoiled, uninhabited wilderness across much of the country. Even if you didn't have a legally enshrined right to wander, no one would be there to stop you from taking a walk up a mountain if you decided to do it. 

Urban Sprawl and Population Density:
As noted above, population densities vary wildly in the UK, but the numbers can be rather deceiving. If you just look at the average population density of England, you could be forgiven for thinking that it'd be hard to get away from people. On the contrary, it's quite easy, and is enabled by the aforementioned public footpath network. Most people live in cities, towns, or villages that are much more compact than those you'd find in the States. The village I lived in had a population of about 300, and it took less than 10 minutes to walk from one extreme to another. In the village was a pub, two churches (a medieval parish Church of England church and a Methodist chapel), and a school. A grocery store was about a 10-15 minute walk away up a road with a sidewalk, on the southern edge of a town of about 30,000. One could reasonable walk from the center of the village up the road, be at the town border in about 5-10 minutes, and be on the other side of the town in another 35-45 minutes. Houses ranged from 3-4 bedroom single family homes on small plots, very similar to what someone might find in the States; duplexes, row homes, and cottages with a small front and slightly larger back garden; and terraced town houses adjacent to the sidewalk with maybe a small back garden. Much more densely packed than a typical town of 30,000 in the States, but most people have a small yard or garden and a garage. We lived in a rather large house that started life as a stone barn for the village Manor Farm in the late 18th century, and was converted to a home in the 1980s when the owners of the farm sold the land to the other bigger farm in the village and divided up the buildings into houses. Our front door went directly into the street (which was apparently where the cows would be let out and driven across the road to the field), but we had a large back garden with a detached garage. Our row house we've moved in to in North Alexandria is MUCH smaller, but the neighborhood also somehow feels less dense than the village because of its layout. But, England is also beginning to experience the effects of urban sprawl, and urban encroachment into farmland in the form of large, American-style subdivisions. It is still much less common than it is here, but it's much more noticed because of land scarcity and the stark contrast with the older construction.

Public Transportation:
No one will be surprised to hear me say that I am even more disappointed with the state of public transit in the US after living in the UK. Even our small village had a bus that ran regularly throughout the day providing service south to Bedford and to villages and towns north. Because it served a lot of villages it took a bit of a meandering path to get to Bedford, and therefore what was normally a 15-20 minute drive would be a 45 minute bus ride, but still, the option was there, and from Bedford you could get a fast train to London for a reasonable price, or to most of the rest of the UK with maybe one, or less likely two, changes (or one change in London to get to Paris or Brussels thanks to the Eurostar). Speaking of Eurostar, the distance from London to Brussels is similar to the distance from Washington to New York, but it takes half the time, and generally cheaper to boot. Rail transport in Scotland is even better. A comprehensive network of regular trains snakes its way through the Highlands and Lowlands, with major hubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Inverness. Even tiny towns in the far northwest are likely to have multiple trains per day servicing their stations.

Highways, Cars, and Driving:
When it comes to roads, the Brits are every bit as obsessed with their cars and driving as Americans are, even if the necessity of car ownership is lowered for most. Motorways are, generally speaking, better laid out and maintained than their American Interstate counterparts, with of course some exceptions. Almost all M roads are six lanes, many are smart highways that have automatically adjusting speed limits. They're generally speaking well constructed, well signed, and thoughtfully designed. Signage in general is much more helpful than it is in most US states, to boot. The side effect of well maintained roads is that road construction and maintenance is perpetual...any trip over two hours will almost invariably have you go through a major construction or refurbishment project. I mentioned that Brits are just as obsessed as Americans with cars and driving, but in different ways. A trip over an hour away is considered a long journey, and not made very often, though some people will also commute that distance in their cars. Fuel is certainly more expensive, working out to about three times as expensive as it is in the US.

Getting a driver's licence is a common right-of-passage for 18 year olds. The training regimen is much more rigorous, requiring actual training and a rather complex knowledge and practical test. You can get licenced to drive only automatics, or you can get a manual licence that allows you to drive both standard and automatic transmission vehicles. Most go for the latter option, as manual transmission cars are much more common. All of the cars we had were manual, and two were diesels. Fuel mileage is much more of a concern there because of the aforementioned high gas prices, so cars tend to be smaller with more efficient engines.  Our diesel estate would get 50+ mpg at lower speeds on long trips. Our SUV could get 45+ if driven conservatively in the right conditions. Even my little 45  year old MG that I brought back with me gets 25+ mpg! 

Speed limits in the UK are significantly higher than the States for comparable roads. All dual-carriageway roads (any divided road) default to 70 miles per hour unless otherwise signed. Single carriageway (think a two-lane road) defaults to 60 unless otherwise signed. It's generally 30 in any village or built-up area. The tiny, two lane, rural, curvy road I'd commute to work on was a 60mph speed limit, though you'd have to be mad to actually go 60 on most stretches of it. These limits and the fact that most roads were laid out before the advent of modern cars (or cars at all, for that matter), effectively means there is no speed limit in most cases. Speeding enforcement is largely left to cameras, too. There are two types, single-point-of-speed cameras that get you if you pass it above the limit, or average cameras that judge how fast you averaged between a set distance and will record your registration if you are high enough over the limit. Police will ticket speeders, but generally only if they're driving egregiously fast (think doing 95 in a 60). Police tend to look out for dangerous driving other than speeding, such as following too closely, passing on the right, driving on bald tires, weaving or cutting off traffic, that sort of thing. As a result, even with higher speed limits and much curvier roads that are generally speaking more crowded than their American counterparts, British fatalities-per-mile-driven are significantly lower than in the States.

Metric vs. Imperial:
British habits are proof that they don't really live in the metric world. Yes, fuel is sold in litres. But, when you buy a car, the mileage is advertised in miles-per-gallon. Speed limits are miles per hour. Distances are in miles (and yards).  People really understand miles and yards, feet and inches, stones and pounds; many will tend to only use grams and kilos in reference to cooking. Liters is only used for fuel and sodas, maybe cans of beer or glasses of wine.  No one orders a half-liter of beer in the pub, you order an pint or a half pint (imperial, of course). Don't let them lie and say they're more advanced than the States because they use the metric system! Either they're lying or they live in London!

Final Thoughts:
I was surprised to find that it felt like the UK was in many ways much more libertarian, free market place in some ways than the US. Private enterprise in a competitive market fulfills many services we expect the local government-authorized monopoly to fill, such as electricity, gas, telephone service, et cetera. Private property rights are a bit more constrained by the footpath access system, but on the other hand, personal responsibility is expected and failures of personal responsibility that result in injury or death are not litigated to the nth degree in an effort to assign blame to outside parties. Some parts of British society are much more regulated than American, and others much less. A lot of Americans see the NHS and the social safety net as a sign that Britain is a Socialist, repressive State, and that simply is not true. It's MUCH more complicated than that...there are many aspects of American society and trade that are regulated in ways most Brits would find incomprehensively abhorrent. The presence of government seems much less ever present, especially in rural areas, than it does in the US in some ways. In urban areas, it certainly seems more present (there is no expectation of privacy in public, and police surveillance of public spaces is the norm). It was fascinating to see how our governments and societies have diverged and mingled over the last 250 or so years, but, for better or for worse, we have more in common than not.

  • Like 2
  • Thanks 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 7/23/2021 at 11:06 AM, Nathan_in_DC said:

A lot of Americans see the NHS and the social safety net as a sign that Britain is a Socialist, repressive State, and that simply is not true.

Great country report on the UK!  I enjoyed reading that.   Concerning the NHS, I don't see it as any worse than the healthcare "system" we have in the US, and that's coming from a Libertarian.    The sum total of all the regulations and government programs in the US essentially ads up to an NHS here that is comparable to the UK.  In both countries rich people are taxed and the money is used to pay for healthcare for poor people.  Simple as that.  Socialism?  Yes.  Repressive... well - yes.  But it's common to both countries, so it backs up what you said about the two nations having a lot in common.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.