In pictures: Do cars take up too much space on city streets?

Traffic in Bangkok, Thailand. Image: Roland Dobbins at Wikimedia Commons.

A while ago, we ran some images of cyclists in Latvia protesting in favour of more bike lanes. They'd strapped neon pieces of wood to their bike frames so as they cycled on Riga's rush-hour roads, they took up the same amount of space as cars:

 

The protest made an important point: that, of all the arguments in favour of cutting the number of cars on our roads, perhaps the most compelling is one that doesn't rely on a belief in climate change, or even statistics on car-releated deaths. It's their sheer size. 

The fact is, in cities where space is limited, giant, motorized boxes carrying an average of two or three people are a massively inefficient form of transport. Handing over a huge proportion of our public space (it's around 80 per cent in London) to roads populated overridingly by cars might not be the best idea either. 

The Latvian protest was far from the first to make this argument. Here are some of the other visualisations we think make the point best.

How much space do cars actually take up?

The Copenhagenize cycling blog recently analysed transport modes at intersections in Paris, Calgary and Tokyo. The resulting diagrams, which compare the number of transporation devices with the space given over to them, look a little like this:

Image: Copenhagenize

The clusters of dots in small areas shows how space for cars seems to be prioritised. Or, as the blog's creator, Mikael Colville-Anderson, would have it, the "blatant injustice of space allocation". 

What if roads were giant holes in the ground?

Twitter, via @ThinkCritical12.

Ok, this one's a bit dramatic. But for busy streets, or in cities where jaywalking's illegal, it's not such a ridiculous representation. At the very least, the picture highlights just how much space is taken up by roads, compared to crosswalks and sidewalks. 

How much space do 69 people take up?

This next image was created by the Cycling Promotion Fund earlier this year. It shows how much road space a group of people take up using cars, a bus, bikes, or standing in a group:

Turns out it's not such a new concept, though. This bus promotion poster circulated in London in the 1960s:

Passive aggressive bike parking spaces

These bike parking areas, like our friends the Latvian cyclists, make a pointed comment on how space usually occupied by cars can be used. A single parking space, it turns out, could store 10 to 15 bikes.

Image: Cyclehoop.

For more on parking, see this video on how Zurich froze the number of downtown parking spaces in 1996 and, amazingly, the city continued to function. In this case, demand fell with parking supply: once cars weren't so convenient, residents turned to walking, cycling and public transport. 

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.