Friday, April 18, 2008

Wasting Space

The two most bicycle friendly countries in Europe are 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 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.

So why did Denmark and Holland choose 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. Then compare this to California with 158,706 sq. miles.

If there is one thing the automobile needs it is a large amount of space, and these two small countries do not have that luxury. Car parking is as large a problem as an inadequate road system. Improving the road system encourages more people to drive creating more congestion and parking problems.

Most European cities were built hundreds of years ago, long before the automobile was conceived; houses were built in terraced rows with no space in between. They have no garages, and there is only enough frontage to each house to allow one car to park for each residence. Often the streets are so narrow that parking is not possible anyway, or sometimes on one side only.

Here in the US we have an abundance of space, but the more space we use 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.

I wonder how many thousands of acres are taken up in Southern California to accommodate the auto, when you consider the five and six lane freeways in all directions, the wasted space between and around those freeways. To say nothing of the acres of parking lots associated with every business.

It then gets to the situation you have in Los Angeles where 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 that city. Six lane freeways still fail to move the volume of traffic, and become parking lots during rush hour.

When I last lived in Southern California in 1994 (After I left the bike business.) I commuted 25 miles to work from Corona, near Riverside, to Anaheim. The trip took me anywhere from one and a half to two hours each way; I could have ridden that distance quicker on a bicycle. The problem was, the only direct route was the freeway, and the route that could have been ridden by bicycle was more like 50 miles.

Going back to 1980 when I moved to San Marcos, some 60 miles north of San Diego, there was mostly undeveloped semi-desert brush land south from San Marcos to San Diego; the same if you went north to Riverside. Then around the mid 1980s the Int.15 Freeway was extended from San Diego to Riverside, and by the time I left in 1994 the whole area from San Diego to somewhere north of Los Angeles was just one huge suburbia.

This area would be about the size of either Denmark or Holland, so there is no need to wonder why they still have a bicycle culture. Why build freeways when on the roads you already have you can drive across the entire country in a matter of hours. And if you accommodate more cars where will they park when the get to their destination?

One of the biggest issues I see with the automobile is not just that it burns fossil fuel and emits greenhouse gasses; in time, technology will fix those problems. The problem is the waste of space.


Anonymous said...

Gee I didn't know people's homes were a "waist of space". In St Louis, MOdot is tearing down homes, damaging neighborhoods, eliminating walking paths, etc. to expand local highways and associated routes. Arterial roads are widened to facilitate the larger highways but are built with inadequate consideration for pedestrians and cyclists, making conditions more dangerous.

Local cycling advocates and their organizations remained silent as these plans were published and are now becoming reality as I type. Consequently the solutions once offered by cycling to improve lifestyles and our air quality are rapidly disappearing.

Wasting space is only one problem in many.

Anonymous said...

Not to nit-pick, but as a former San Marcos resident (we escaped to be in a community where we don't need a car - my work, my wife's work, my son's school are all within 1/2 mile), San Marcos is only 30 miles north of San Diego.

WestfieldWanderer said...

Perhaps another reason why the Netherlands, and particularly Denmark, never espoused the car culture is that neither country has or had much of a car manufacturing industry - Denmark doesn't have one at all. Thus there was no heavy corporate pressure on government to create a car culture.

kawika said...

it isn't just wasted space, it's the wasted time and reliance on technology (although i ride all carbon bikes). more than that, it is a culture that is not active, or that drives in order to exercise

bg said...

great article. Your thoughts are along the same lines as another blog located here:

and specifically a book referenced:
Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, written by Andrews Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.

All of this info I picked up from Kent Peterson's blog ( These are reasons I do appreciate the internet.
Keep up the great articles!

Bob Gong
Granite Bay, CA

db said...

Nice, thoughtful article. I'm heading to the Netherlands next week for some cycle touring, and posts like this just make me more excited to get there.

Moonlight Mark said...

There are some American cities that have good urban transportation systems and are becoming more bike friendly, where one can live without using a car to get around. San Francisco is a good example, and I'm told that NYC is another. We we are blessed with to much "space" to spread out and like low density housing covering huge areas with 2500 sq ft single family detached homes with nice yards. It is part of the excessive consumerism that drives our society, and it does seem wasteful. We have to much of everything.

Anonymous said...

While they burn fossil fuel to operate, cars also require a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to build. The materials themselves, the energy to produce the materials, the energy that is consumed within the infrastructure that produces the materials all add up to endless consumption. billions of bicycles and the tires and parts necessary to keep those bicycles on the road could be produced with a fraction of the energy that cars require.

Anonymous said...

Oh jeez, and the energy required to produce, haul and form all that concrete and asphalt? Consider all of the fossil fuel going up in smoke to power all those traffic lights, thoroughfare lighting, intersection cameras, databases, etc....don't get me started. Don't even get me started.

Groover said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Groover said...

Sorry. I was off topic.

Very well written. Couldn't agree more!

R Botham said...

As I read your two latest entries today and then jumped over the Copenhagen blog in question (another I often visit), I was struck by the acute contrast between the brutal reality (you described quite accurately) of our American cycling environment and the romance and spirituality of the Denmark environment. The Copenhagen blog is really focused on appreciation of beauty; cycling is only the context and not the subject. And it is a celebration of natural beauty--no care at all about the brand of bicycle or components. It reminds me of the traditional Haiku form of poetry that must desribe and embody nature.

Two days ago I saw a trio of real lycra clad cyclists (rare here in South Bend, Ind.) blow right through a light in town...inciting some auto horn honking. I can't imagine such war in that paradise called Copenhagen. At least not the way Mikael presents it. Someday I will go and see.

Fritz said...

I was reading this post and thought also of San Francisco like Moonlight Mark mentioned. San Francisco is constrained geographically in a 7 mile by 7 mile square and basically fully developed -- there's no room for more streets even if you wanted them, and San Francisco residents have rejected recent proposals for elevated freeways.

I'd argue that our car culture developed from suburbia rather than suburbia developing from car culture. Having a reasonable sized home out in the suburbs with a yard *is* nice if you didn't have the traffic and sustainability tradeoffs. The Danes I know here in the USA all buy big homes out in the exurbs and they all drive SUVs just like the rest of us fat Americans.

Zakkaliciousness said...

Nothing like a bit of Myth Debunking on this sunny spring day. It's only fair that people who have done research help those who haven't. Where to start, where to start...

I'm not trying to debunk the myth that the countries are flat. Compared to Andorra, they are. It's true. The geographical features of the two nations, and the two capitals, have little to do with why so many people ride their bikes here.

It is actually a historical and political issue. When the Bicycle Revolution 1.0 swept the planet in the late 1800's and early 1900's everybody, everywhere in the industrialised world, rode a bike. The bicycle liberated women and it liberated the working class.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, there were Cyclist Unions just like anywhere else. When cycling became a sport - which happened quickly and with great impact - the cyclist unions in many countries then had to compete with Sport Cycling unions. In the Netherlands they saw the bicycle as a social activity for the people, with many societal benefits. They even banned bike racing for a time in order to preserve the bicycle as an integral part of the culture.

In Denmark, the cyclists' union was well-organised and politically active from the start and, throughout the 20th century it remained so. In both countries the unions were powerful and vocal advocates of bike culture and they were heard.

We reap the benefits to this day. So THAT is why we ride, not because the cities are flat.

Regarding motorways, we have an extensive network of motorways and even build some of the world's largest bridges to carry vehicles across expanses of water. The blogpost made it sound like we have some gravel roads here and there.

And the whole Denmark/Holland angle is a little out of date, not to mention tiresome.

If you look at the current statistics, 100 million people in Europe ride their bike each day. That's out of half a billion people. One fifth. 100 billion kilometres are cycled each year in Europe, most of it ulitarian journeys, according to the European Cyclist Union.

Some of the cities with the highest daily bike usage are in Switzerland - not a flat country if I remember my geography.

It's political willpower that creates bike culture not geography.

BTW, Denmark and Holland, like every country, has had a car manufacturing industry. It faded away in the 60's and 70's but for the better part of the 20th century we made our own vehicles.

Zakkaliciousness said...

addendum: if anyone is interested in cycling long-distance in Europe, we have developed a fantastic system of pan-national bike routes for your touring pleasure.
66,175 km in all.

Here's a few that look thrilling: [for reference, it's 3914 km from San Diego to New York]

- Atlantic Coast Route: North Cape to Sagres - 8,186 km
- Pilgrims Route: Trondheim to Santiago de Compostela - 5,122 km
- Via Romea Francigena: London to Rome and Brindisi 3,900 km
- Mediterranean Route: Cádiz to Athens and Cyprus 5,888 km
- Baltic Sea Cycle Route (Hansa circuit) 7,980 km

Read more here

Nico said...

I doubt anybody'll read this, I'm a little late. You have missed a historic point: Ford paid to have the tramlines pulled up in some cities so cars would have room, and become a necessity. Here in France, every little town and village had a railway link to a bigger station. People prefered cars to the extent that it became economically unviable to run the railways, the rails were pulled out and melted down, just the small staions and ballast remain. With oil at 120, traffic is set to thin in the next two years unless the taps open full.

improbable said...

Zakkaliciousness: thanks for interesting points, I didn't know Denmark used to make cars. I was going to bring up is it Norway vs Sweden, the natural twin study of having or not having a motor industry.

When the city was built up seems to be a big deal: the new exurbs of Paris (say) are not dramatically better than those of LA, in terms of needing a car. The difference is between that part of the city built before 1950, and that built after.

Something that does need to be mentioned is that many American cities have much worse climates, too. Riding around London in winter you need a raincoat (and lights!), but around New York you need to have eskimo blood!

serge said...

It's not only the waste of space or pollution that bothers me with our car culture. But also we've accepted the fact that cars are killing people everyday.