How many continents are there?

Come on kids, between us we can crack this. Image: Getty.

Once upon a time, “How many continents are there” was one of those questions with straightforward answers, like “How many colours are in a rainbow” or “what is the weather like in summer”. There are seven. Of course there are seven: all those picture books I had as a kid said there were seven.

Except, it turns out that, as with so many of the things we tell our children, this number owed as much to social convention as it does to objective reality. And social conventions can differ: depending on where you are in the world, there can be anywhere between four and seven continents, and you sometimes don’t have to travel very far to get a different answer.

So, to coin a phrase: what on Earth is going on?

Rules and regulations

First define your continent. The Wikipedia page on the matter contains this helpful explanation:

By convention, “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”.

Which sounds simple enough. Except the very next sentence is this:

Many of the seven most commonly recognized continents identified by convention are not discrete landmasses separated completely by water.

Which feels like an unexpected piece of dry humour from an open-sourced encyclopaedia.

But it has a point: it’s the work of all of four seconds to think of vast numbers of ways in which the seven things you almost certainly think of as continents don’t fit this rule. Off the top of my head:

  • Islands like Great Britain are considered part of continents despite not being part of continuous masses of land;

  • North and South America are not discrete masses of land, they’re connected by an isthmus;

  • Neither are Africa and Asia;

  • Europe and Asia aren’t even vaguely separated, they’re quite obviously the same bloody thing;

  • If Europe gets to be a continent because it’s separated from Asia by some mountains and some inland seas, then why is India only a sub-continent?

  • If Australia is a continent why is Greenland only an island? Okay, it’s smaller, but where’s the line? What are the rules here?

And so on and so on.

Spinning plates

There is another way of dividing the Earth up into roughly continent sized bits, which has a rather more scientific basis to it: plate tectonics, the geological theory which explains mountain ranges, volcanoes, and so on by showing how bits of the Earth’s surface have been sliding about and banging into each other for the last few billion years.

In this theory, it’s quite obvious why the Americas are two continents, why Australia is one but Greenland isn’t, and why Africa is a different thing to Asia despite being attached to it. It also highlights a very good reason for considering Britain to be part of Europe: they’re part of the same continental shelf, even if part of that shelf is submerged under water. Despite Brexit, Britain will always be in Europe.

The plates. Click to expand. Image: USGS/Wikimedia Commons.

In many other ways, though, the map of the tectonic plates doesn’t look anything like the map of the continents. For one thing there are a bunch of oceanic ones, which on maps of the world are mostly just water with a few islands in them.

For another, the Middle East and India are their own plates, so aren’t part of Asia; neither is the Russian Far East, which is actually part of the North American plate. Europe, meanwhile, very clearly is part of Asia, except for Iceland, which is half Asian, half North American.

There are good reasons why plate tectonics isn’t going to get us very far in explaining why we mostly think we have seven continents. One is that it’s a surprisingly recent theory: it wasn’t widely recognised by the scientific community until the 1960s, so there are plenty of people around now whose school text books will have laughed at the idea.

Another is that the plate boundaries are often invisible or, at least at the human scale, nonsensical: any system which splits Iceland into two separate continents is not going to be a useful categorisation.


Geography is written by the victors

The real reason we count Europe as a continent and include Britain in it, treat India as a part of Asia, and so forth is (this is where we came in) social convention: we do it because we do.

More than that, we do it because the rules on this stuff were largely formulated by the Europeans who spent much of the last five hundred years or so conquering the world. That’s why Europe is a seen as a single, diverse continent but the Indian subcontinent, with its own patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, isn’t: because the former was the imperial power that conquered the latter.

A related point is that, if you ignore plate tectonics, the entire world doesn’t divide neatly up into continents at all. The reason a huge bunch of Pacific islands get bundled together with Australia as a slightly miscellaneous category called “Oceania” is as much because people wanted to make everything fit in somewhere, as it is because of any real connection between the two.

So those lengthy explanations aside, how many continents actually are there?

Counting continents

There seem to be six different systems, helpfully portrayed in this gif:

A gif of the various models. Click to expand. Image: AlexCovarrubia/Wikimedia Commons.

The seven continent system is the one you’re probably familiar with. That’s the one that’s standard in the English-speaking world, China, south Asia, and parts of western Europe. The British Empire can probably be blamed, at least in part, for its dominance.

There’s also an ultra-stripped down four continent model which divides the world into four major landmasses: Eurasia-Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia. This, best I can tell, isn’t taught anywhere; but it is the logical end point of the definition that involves big bits of land divided by water, so it’s worth including it anyway.

In between there are four other models:

  • A six-continent system in which Europe and Asia are one continent. This, the internet tells me, is the standard in Russia and Eastern Europe (which makes sense, given that the slavic world straddles the Urals), and also Japan (although, citation needed).

  • A different six-continent system treats Europe and Asia as separate, but combines North and South America. That one seems to be favoured in France, much of southern Europe and various places colonised by those countries.

  • There’s also a five continent system which combines the Americas but ignores Antarctica because, to the first approximation, nobody lives there. This is the one favoured by the UN and the International Olympic Committee (count the rings).

  • Lastly, there’s a variant five-continent system consisting of Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. I can find no reference whatsoever to anyone using this one, but it’s in the gif and also this National Geographic page, so I’m including it for the sake of completism.

So, there you go. The best we can say is that the world has “some continents”. Assuming you accept the notion that continents exist at all.

I’m still really angry at those picture books which promised me snow in winter and heat in summer, incidentally.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.