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The revolution on London’s streets

A hundred years ago, London was undergoing a transport revolution. Electric trams, electric underground trains, motor cars and motor buses had all entered the market while horse-drawn buses, trams and cabs were leaving it. I’m guessing here, but it seems to me that for centuries the big class distinction was whether you owned a horse or not. Now that horses were becoming uninimportant, class barriers were starting to come down.

But that’s by the by. In a revolution there are winners and losers. And here, in the London County Council’s accounts, we see a loser, horse-drawn trams:

The Times 16 June 1913 page 3

The Times 16 June 1913 page 3

But read a bit further and you see it’s not just horse-drawn trams that are losing out:

The most striking feature of the accounts is the falling off in gross traffic receipt, as well as in the receipts a car-mile compared with previous years. The average passenger receipts a car-mile have gradually fallen from 11.95d. in 1907 to 9.73d. this year. A new factor which has arisen during the last year or two which the Council has seriously to reckon, in its efforts to maintain the tramway undertaking on a sound financial basis, is the great increase in the competition which the tramways have to meet from the motor-omnibus undertakings.

In other words buses are taking their market. I must admit I’m in two minds on this. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the government losing money. On the other, trams are nicer than buses: smoother, quieter, cleaner. And commercial tram operators (they do exist) will not find bus competition any easier to deal with. You have to feel some sympathy with operators that have, at great expense, set up electric tram systems only to find them superseded by the internally combusted upstart within a few years.

But buses are where the action is. Still. In 1911, they bought up the lion’s share of London’s tube network. [Yes, private enterprise integrated transport.] They may be dirty, noisy and uncomfortable but they are cheap and flexible and go where people want them to go. Oh, and dangerous. Did I mention dangerous:

The Times 20 June 1913 page 4

The Times 20 June 1913 page 4

13 comments to The revolution on London’s streets

  • Rich Rostrom

    …it seems to me that for centuries the big class distinction was whether you owned a horse or not.

    Weren’t there a lot of dustmen and rag-and-bone collectors and peddlers who owned horses? (I know that peddlers from horse-drawn wagons were common in the U.S. But perhaps not in the densest metro areas like Manhattan, and thus perhaps not in dense metro London. One hears of “barrow boys” instead.)

    On the other, trams are nicer than buses: smoother, quieter, cleaner.

    The power for electric trams came from coal-fired power stations, so I question “cleaner”.

    Oh, and dangerous.

    The table is for all traffic accidents, including private cars, horse-drawn vehicles, trucks, trams, and motor buses. People were struck and killed by trams on occasion. (President Theodore Roosevelt was nearly killed in a collision of his motorcar with a tram-car on a downhill run. One of his bodyguards was killed.)

    Besides that: one advantage of the motor bus is that bus passengers can wait, board, and get off on the curb. Tram passengers have to wait, board, and get off in the middle of the street, which is much more dangerous – not from the tram, but from other passing vehicles.

  • llamas

    In the accident figures, should also not overlook that this was an era of transition from the classic horse-drawn hackney carriage to the motorized cab – IIRC, the first motorized cab took to the streets of London in 1901, and the standard requirements for a motorised cab were set down shortly thereafter. One suspects that a lot of mishaps between pedestrians and cabs, that would have been a relatively minor matter if it were a a horse-drawn hackney cab, became much more serious when motorized cabs became more numerous.



  • veryretired

    Several years ago the magazine “American Heritage” had a good article about why street car lines routinely lost out to busses. It was a combination of costs and flexibility, if I remember correctly, that usually caused the change.

    Needless to say, the statists have never lost their enthusiasm for the graft and job opportunities inherent in big, expensive government subsidized public transportation projects.

    This new, lunatic project in California is only the latest example, and, in its own way, a perfect example of this entire genre of stupidity.

  • Mr Ed

    A distant relative of mine, a Primitive Methodist minister, was killed by a train on a Sunday afternoon at some point between Sunderland and South Shields in the mid 19th Century. He somehow failed to evade the slow, noisy clunking ‘beast’ and was, sadly, mown down by it. I have to assume that his faith precluded him from partaking of alcoholic beverages, and his hearing was not in question, how he met his fate remains a mystery, but trains and transport were perilous indeed then. His closer relative my Grandmother, lamented Sunderland Corporation’s abolition of trolleybuses in the 1950s, recounting how they raked in money, yet the buses that replaced them devoured ratepayers’ money. I don’t have the figures, but I have no reason to doubt her.

    But for wasting money, trams apart, my vote goes to the £181,000,000 guided bus way between Huntingdon and Cambridge. A lot of money for a bus driver to take his hands off the steering wheel, surely not a good habit.

  • Fred Z

    High capital fixed route transportation of people, goods or information will usually be more expensive than a distributed net like roads or the internet. Mainframes and rail have uses, but are not much use for commenting here, watching porn or having the Yanks ship me car parts at prices vastly cheaper than my local car dealer. The rapacious crook.

    There are simple logical conclusions which derive from the fact that we live on an irregular oblate spheroid and have to move stuff around the bumps and holes on and in the surface. Even worse the bumps and holes keep moving about or falling onto our equipment or our equipment falls into holes, often full of moving water. Then too, we are creatures of irregular habit and often simply stop using or change the use of parts of our surface. Massive rail lines to Detroit no longer seem useful.

    So I like roads, and I like them to be populated with pedestrians, scooters, powered skateboards, bicycles, powered bicycles, mo-peds, cruisers, crotch rockets, naked bikes, smart cars, rocket cars, electric cars, vans, taxis, buses big and small, trucks and wiener-mobiles.

    Really, the flow of traffic, the chaos, the noise, the fun, the horns, shaking fists, lights and color are a fabulous part of modern life. Without all of it I’d be bored silly.

  • llamas

    @ Fedd Z, who wrote:

    “Really, the flow of traffic, the chaos, the noise, the fun, the horns, shaking fists, lights and color are a fabulous part of modern life. Without all of it I’d be bored silly.”

    True dat. I just restored my 1976 Honda (same one I rode to work every day in South London, back in the day) and I’m riding it to work again on sunny days. I’d forgotten the active interplays of traffic that suddenly (re)appear when you see it from a different perspective – it’s easy to become cocooned in whatever form of transport you habitually use, no matter what it is.



  • Paul Marks

    The reason that buses were doing relatively well is that they did not have to pay the full cost of using the (taxpayer provided) streets. If cars and busses had to pay to use private roads the economics of buses and cars versus (private) trams and trains (who have to provide their own infrastructure) would be rather different.

    Although, certainly, private individuals, companies and charitable trusts should be able to provide “free roads” if they wish to do so.

  • Mr Ed


    It would be nice to have some figures on the cost of roads vs. the tax taken on fuel and VED. The accounting problems are exacerbated by the ‘sunken’ costs of historic motorways etc, and the cost of new roads might be infinite in some cases if compulsory purchase were abolished (we can hope). I suspect that theamount taken in taxes from road users now exceeds the cost of road maintenance and building.

    Of course, another question might be the true cost of roads if they weren’t built on government contracts.

    Anyone who has driven a lot on British roads recently might wonder of the RAF have been testing cluster bombs on any decent stretch of road that they can find, but, no, it’s the cold, dead hand of the State and Father Time at work.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I believe revenue has exceeded expenditure since the 1930s. Nowadays it is many times higher especially if you include fuel taxes, VAT etc.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Paul Marks – July 2, 2013 at 11:15 am:

    The reason that buses were doing relatively well is that they did not have to pay the full cost of using the (taxpayer provided) streets.

    Well, yeah. Because they weren’t the only users of the streets. Bus companies paid considerable taxes on motor fuel, passenger revenue, and real estate (sheds and yards).

    Also bear in mind that the value of a street or road is not linearly proportional to usage. Suppose two households live at the end of a country road. Householder A is employed, and drives to and from his house daily (plus shopping on Saturday and church on Sunday). B is retired, and only leaves home once a week for church; he relies on twice-monthly deliveries rather than shop. Does that mean A gets 5x the value of the road compared to B? No, because for both A and B, the road is a necessity for living there. And very likely, 90% of the cost of maintenance is repair of weather damage.

    A transport or communications network has value beyond the actual traffic carried in any given period because of what it makes possible. The more extensive and complete it is, the greater this synergy. (There is a point of diminishing returns, of course.)

    A public road network does that very strongly. A light rail line or even small network, much less so.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Rich, The whole way more than the sum of its parts. Good point.

    My all-time favorite SF story (not novel*) illustrates this point perfectly. It’s “A Subway Named Mobius [sic],” by A.J. Deutsch. It’s reprinted in both the paper and the original big hardback versions of Groff Conklin’s anthology The Omnibus of Science Fiction (1952); paperback, similar title, 1956. (This is Conklin — naturally there are other gems in there also. *g*) Originally in Astounding, Dec. 1950, and, in the UK, Argosy, Sept. 1953.

    *All-time favorite SF novel: John Wyndham’s Out of the Deeps, or as you Brits call it, The Kraken Wakes. (Silly title. *haughty sniff*) Brrrr! — and seriously, I think the American title suggests the mysteriousness of the novel much better than the British. Both this and “Subway” create an irresistible atmosphere of Something Strange in our Workaday World.

  • Julie near Chicago

    As a matter of fact, Rich’s householders illustrate perfectly a conundrum that comes up where ever there are extensive fee-charging networks.

    Suppose Householder A, the worker bee, drives an Oojah-cum-Spiff, 4 cylinders, 30 mpg, and suppose that the deliveries to Householder B are made in its very litter-mate: coincidentally, the very next one off the same assembly line, outfitted exactly the same, and oddly enough also getting 30 mpg–even when loaded with deliveries.

    Suppose the roadway in question is paid for by tolls. Now, per trip, both O-c-S’s put approximately the same wear & tear on the road. Do you charge them the same toll per trip? Or do you charge the Worker Bee less because he uses the road more often and it’s not fair to “penalize” him for working. On the other hand, if you don’t give him the frequent-driver discount, are you not giving B a “free ride” on the grounds that the roadway is necessary to both, so why should A pay more for its use?

    This is purely an intellectual exercise. Usually some go with one viewpoint, some with the other. At work we had one real-world example: the charges for the data-communications service we provided to banks (they bought our data-processing service). Most of our banks were located within five miles of the Center, but we were looking to expand our business, even courting banks over 200 miles away in Indiana. How to charge? According to distance, or a flat rate? My boss thought it was “not fair to penalize the more distant banks for being more distant.” Some others thought that a flat rate effectively asked the banks nearby to subsidize the distant ones, also distinctly unfair.

    In the end I don’t know what they decided. In any case we were soon eaten by Ross Perot’s EDS, a stupid move on the part of our owner banks, and as a result of this brilliance there was a Staff Change. (EDS mucked it up royally, so General Electric Credit Corp. bought us, and knew it was a Mistake after a mere 6 months. GMAC took over. G-d only knows who owns it now, or if it even still exists.)

    Back to the point. The issue is what different people think is “fair.” Opinions differ, usually irreconcilably. (Social Justice, anyone?) Usually the best solution is to find some other pertinent way to think about the issue. “I changed the problem,” said Captain Kirk, speaking of how he successfully solved some “impossible” conundrum on his Starship Command (or whatever it was called) final exam. –There is form for this. For instance, Cantor’s proof that the rational numbers are countable. Even if you include every expression of each as a quotient of two integers! (1/1, 2/2, 3/3, …, for example, are in everyday arithmetic “the same number,” i.e. “equal,” but Cantor’s proof counts each one separately.)

    Personally I think people who worry much about “free riders” (and “lone holdouts”) need to be sent off alone to some wilderness area where they can live on nuts and berries and worry the question to their hearts’ content, leaving the rest of us undistracted by irrelevancies. I will spare you the rant. 🙂

  • Paul Marks

    I repeat that I have nothing against private roads – whether owned by for profit companies or charitable trusts.

    And I am no more opposed to tax money being spent on roads than I am opposed to tax money being spent on rail. I am opposed to both.