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. 

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.