Ever since the days of Dick Whittington and his peripatetic cat, the British have been leaving the countryside and heading for the bright lights in search of fame and fortune. So many people are now cramming themselves into our urban centres that newcomers are more likely to find the streets paved with gridlocked traffic than with gold.
Re-enter the tram. Five decades after streetcars started disappearing, town planners are returning to trams and guided buses in an effort to put our 21st-century traffic on the right track. Services operating include those in Sheffield, Manchester and Croydon, and the Government plans to spend a further pounds 2.6 billion on 'light rail' in the next 10 years. That will put the UK at the top of the Euro tram-spending league, with brand-new networks in Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff and Cambridge, and new routes in the capital.
THE CHALLENGE: As readers of a certain age will testify, trams and trolleybuses provided cheap, quick and reliable urban transport, filling the gap between commuter rail operations and shanks's pony admirably. Then the prosperous '60s came along, car ownership became the rule and the nation's tram lines disappeared, buried under acres of fresh tarmac. Now the wheel has turned full circle, and with traffic in our sclerotic and fume-choked town centres crawling along at an all-day average of 8mph (3mph at peak times), the pressure is on to persuade commuters to leave their cars at home.
THE SOLUTION: Trams are not flawless - it takes several years and a lot of money to build a network, and the lines use road space that would otherwise be available to motor traffic. But they are clean and quiet and phenomenally efficient people-movers. Trams running every five minutes can carry as much traffic as an eight-lane motorway full of cars, and of all the proposals to deal with inner city congestion, 'light rail' has the best track record at reducing road use. The Manchester Metrolink - to be extended to Manchester Airport if money allows - has cut car use by 20% along its route, Croydon's 24km-long Tramlink (opened in 2000) by 15%. No wonder there are 25 new tram schemes in the offing.
Edinburgh is spending pounds 190 million on a circular tram route around the city centre and a guided busway (using modified buses running along kerbed-in bus lanes) to serve Auld Reekie's western suburbs. And down south, the pounds 200 million west London tram scheme, due for completion in 2009, will carry 50 million passengers a year from Uxbridge to Shepherd's Bush, cutting journey times and relieving pressure on some of the country's most congested roads west of the capital. So putative Dick Whittingtons should find their trek to the golden heart of the big city much easier.