Urban public transport in Britain is efficient and can be fun. Fares are reasonable, especially compared to the expense of parking a car. Most of the larger cities have good bus services. London, Newcastle and Glasgow also have an underground system, while Edinburgh, Manchester and Nottingham have trams. Taxis are available at every train station and at ranks in city centres. The best way to see many cities is on foot, but whatever transport you opt for, try to avoid the rush hours from 8am to 9:30am and 5pm to 6:30pm.
Buses come in all shapes and sizes, with automatic doors and comfortable interiors. They include driver-operated double-deckers, smaller single-deckers that can weave through traffic more easily and, in London, the new Routemaster double-deckers with doors at front, centre and rear and ‘conductors’ as well as drivers to check tickets. The only London route on which the old, open-backed Routemaster buses are still used is Heritage route 15, between the Tower of London and Trafalgar Square via St Paul’s Cathedral.
In London you cannot pay with cash on city buses, although you can use a contactless credit or debit card (with a non-UK card this will incur extra charges). Instead, you touch an Oyster electronic card against a ticket reader as you enter, or show a travel pass to the driver or conductor. The best ticket options are a Visitor Oyster Card, charged with an amount of credit that diminishes each time you use it (but can be recharged) or, if you only use public transport for a day, a one-day Travelcard. Both cards can be used on the Underground and local trains as well as buses and are available from Underground stations, travel information centres, shops showing the blue Oyster symbol, or online before you arrive in Britain through Transport for London (www.tfl.gov.uk) or VisitLondon (www.visitlondon.com).
In most other cities you can still buy tickets from drivers when you board a bus, but large urban areas – the West Midlands, Greater Manchester – have their own regional travel cards valid on all public transport within their area, which are more economical than individual tickets. Details for each area are available from local tourist offices.
Night services are provided in larger cities from about 11pm to 6am. In London, night buses are prefixed with the letter “N”, and most pass through Trafalgar Square.
If you want to board a bus, raise your arm as the bus approaches: to get off, ring the bell once before your stop. Destinations are shown on the front of buses. If you are not sure which stop you need, ask the driver or conductor to alert you and stay on the lower deck. Keep your card or ticket until the end of any journey, in case an inspector gets on board. They can impose an on-the-spot fine if you are without a valid ticket.
Driving in Cities
Driving in city centres is increasingly discouraged. London has a congestion charge – if you drive or park within the congestion zone from Monday to Friday (7am to 6pm), you will be charged a £11.50 fee to pay online before midnight that day. Not paying the charge will lead to a large fine. See Transport for London's website for more information. Other cities are considering similar steps to keep drivers out of the centres. Parking in city centres is also strictly controlled to prevent congestion.
In large towns, taxis can be found at taxi ranks and train stations, or you can phone for a radio taxi. The local Yellow Pages, pubs, restaurants and hotels all have lists of taxi numbers. Prices are usually regulated. If there is no taxi meter, ask the price before starting your journey. If you are not sure ask the local tourist information point the usual rate for specific destinations.
The famous London black cabs are as much of an institution as big red buses. These are the safest cabs to use in London since all drivers have undergone strict tests. All are wheelchair-accessible. Licensed cabs display a “For hire” sign, which is lit up whenever they are free, and can be hailed in the street. Most drivers expect a tip of around 10-15 per cent of the fare.
Licensed minicabs are cheaper alternatives to black cabs, which must be booked by phone; hotels have numbers of local companies. In London and several other cities minicabs can also be booked through the Uber mobile phone app (www.uber.com), which finds the nearest available cab to your location.
Trams are making a comeback throughout Britain in clean, energy-efficient and more modern guises. One of the best tram schemes in Britain is Manchester’s Metrolink. The oldest tramway is in Blackpool, which opened in 1885.
The Underground network in London, known as the Tube, has more than 270 stations, each of which is marked with the London Underground logo. The only other cities with an underground system are Newcastle and Glasgow. Newcastle’s system is limited to the city centre, while Glasgow’s skirts around the centre. Both run the same hours as London’s and are a reliable way to get around.
London tube trains run every day, except Christmas Day, from about 5:30am until just after midnight and some lines now run 24 hours. Fewer trains run on Sundays and public holidays. Note that the tube can get very crowded during rush hour.
London’s tube lines are color-coded and maps are posted at every tube station, while maps of the central section are displayed in each train.
Most tube journeys between central destinations in London can be completed with only one or two changes of line.
Tickets are purchased at the station, but many travelers use an Oyster card, a prepaid electronic card that can be topped up for use on buses, trains and the tube. Using an Oyster card is by far the cheapest way of travelling on London Transport’s tubes and buses. For information on how to get one, see the Transport for London website. Oyster cards can be purchased from abroad or you can use contactless credit or debit cards for each journey. There are similar electronic card schemes in other major British cities, such as Oxford.
Check out our London Underground page for more information.
Walking in Cities
Once you get used to traffic on the left, Britain’s cities can be safely and enjoyably explored on foot. Instructions written on the road will tell you from which direction you can expect the traffic to come.
There are two types of pedestrian crossing: striped zebra crossings and push-button crossings at traffic lights. At a zebra crossing, traffic should stop for you, but at push-button crossings, cars will not stop until the lights change in your favor. More and more cities and towns are creating traffic-free zones in the city centre for pedestrians.
Cycling is one of the greenest ways of getting around town. Even modest towns have somewhere you can hire bikes (see tfl.gov.uk for London, or cyclehireinfo.com for the rest of the UK). Cyclists may not use motorways or their approach roads, nor can they ride on pavements, footpaths or pedestrianised zones. Many city roads have cycle lanes and their own traffic lights. You can take a bike on most trains; see the National Rail website for more information. Never leave your bike unlocked, and always wear a helmet.
Content provided by DK Eyewitness Travel Guides (www.traveldk.com)