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Wasting Space

Mark Twain once said, “Buy land; they’re not making it anymore.” As the world’s population explodes it is pretty easy to understand the amount of real estate each individual has at their disposal, gets less and less because… “They’re not making it anymore.”

I’m not just talking space to live, there has to be space for businesses for people to work and buy food and other necessities. The biggest user of space in our society is the automobile. If each individual has an automobile that vehicle uses more space than the individual that owns it, if you include roads, and places to park, etc.

Each factory or shopping mall has a parking lot bigger in area than the actual building structure. Every highway takes up at least twice the space of the actual paved road, if you include the verges at the side of the road, the median between lanes, and bridges and intersections can take up acres and acres of space.  


It is not by accident or some act of governments the two of the smallest countries in Europe are also the most bicycle friendly; Demark and Holland. (Netherlands) It is not so much that these two countries developed a bicycle culture; they never really opted out of it, while after WWII the rest of Europe followed the United States and gradually switched to a society dependent on automobiles.



Up until the 1960s even Britain still had a bicycle culture. Not only did the majority of the population not own cars, but most had never learned to drive. People rode bicycles to work, children rode to school, and ladies did their shopping on a bicycle with a basket on the handlebars. There was also a good public transport system; trains and busses.

Lack of space forced Denmark and Holland not to opt for an automobile society? When you look at the size of these two countries it is easy to see why; Denmark’s area is a total of 16,629 sq. miles while Holland is 15,892 sq. miles. Both these countries could almost fit into my current home state of South Carolina, at 31,113 sq, miles, and South Carolina is not a particularly large state. Compare this to California with 158,706 sq. miles, or Texas 268,820 sq. miles.

It is hard to convince the average American that we are wasting space it would seem there is still an abundance of it, but the more space used to accommodate the automobile, the more people are forced to live further and further away from the city center, and more space is required for roads to get people to and from work, and still more space to park once they get there. Not to mention the cost of fuel and wear and tear on a vehicle.

It then gets to the situation you have in Los Angeles/Long Beach/Riverside, California, where urban sprawl has reached 4,850 sq. miles. It is not unusual for people to commute 80 miles each way to work, because the only home they can afford is out in the desert somewhere east of the city. Five and six lane freeways still fail to move the volume of traffic, and become parking lots during rush hour.

In the above picture I count approximately 8 cars per lane, from the bridge to the foreground of the picture. With one individual per car that is 40 people using up this huge area.  

Let’s forget for a moment that fossil fuels will eventually run out. I can remember 50 years ago people said that oil would run out in 20 years, and still we keep finding more. Let’s also forget for now that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming. Both these may be sound arguments, but are a hard sell to many people.

One of the biggest issues I see with the automobile is the terrible waste of space. In time technology may find alternative fuels, but apart from multi story buildings and a few underground tunnels, technology cannot produce more space.

We can no longer support a situation where every individual owns an automobile; families will have to share one car. This means someone in the family will have to ride a bike, at least some of the time.



Reader Comments (10)

Dave: Great post and I agree with almost all of the above except that Mark Twain is wrong-- they ARE still making land; you just have to go to Iceland or Hawaii to get in on it. Additionally, with global warming sooner or later the oceans ought to boil away, exposing even more of the stuff. Hopefully the sea bed will be bicycle friendly.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge A

Thanks George, I'm glad you have the solution. I like it, when the oceans boil away we can have one big freeway going around the entire globe. :)

August 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Why is it that the people that see this and realize it are not the ones that can make change to others thoughts?

It is a sad state of affairs when the USA is so worried about Global Warming but you see such a very low percentage of commuters (i.e. non-car users!) on the road, bus, or train.

Winning the battle is so easy, yet so many people don't see the way to victory - the bicycle :)

Great post as always Dave!

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill

There is also another problem with this. The space taken by the cars & roads in cities is such that it makes it impossible to build a dense city, which is essential to have an effective public transport network. Which means that people will use their cars more, and that more space will be used for it. Catch 22!

That said it feels normal for drivers, while cyclist see this problem right away.
I remember renting a car and being stuck in traffic on a highway thinking " We are 50 persons on an area the size of the football pitch, there is plenty of space left between cars, and we can't move. We can't even turn back!". Drives me crazy.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

Hi Dave!

This slightly relevant article appeared in my Google+ feed today. It is pretty obvious once one starts to think about it.

"In our research at the University of Connecticut, we've found that cities with higher levels of automobile use generally supply more parking, perhaps as would be expected. But what is unexpected is the degree to which these cities also have a much lower density of what matters in cities, residents and jobs"


August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTorben

Dave, right on. I've been saying that the personal automobile is one of the worst inventions. Well, it's more the use of it than the device itself, but "releasing" such a tool to people who are not mature enough to use it wisely is stupid.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMicheal Blue

The older I get the more I believe the automobile is the worst invention in the history of humanity and may, in fact, destroy the planet.

If we went back to 1900 and said that we were thinking about creating a product that would kill hundreds of thousands of people a year (world wide) and cripple millions - would we build it?

If we considered building a product that would destroy massive amounts of living space - would we build it?

If we thought about creating a product that eventually would destroy the entire planet through global warming / burning of fossil fuels - would we build it?

Yeah, probably. Humans aren't that smart.

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames Thurber

The whole question is political will. We can no longer add lanes. Some impediments to density are the zoning restrictions. We really need to allow mixed use, including housing in our cities where we can mix housing, office and retail.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

As well as polluting our cities with fumes and noise, cars waste ever increasing amounts of space while generating ever increasing waists. Societies that base personal transport on cars are societies full of fat people.

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Rawlins

Great article - this is a problem which no one has grasped even in the UK where there is still considerable planning for the car but not on such a grand level as in other parts of the world. If I recall correctly in the 1970s Dutch people campaigned for bicycle planning primarily on road safety issues.

January 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Taylor
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