Smaller is better? Car size in the UK and America

While several other blog posts on this site have compared transportation in England and the States, including discussions of public transit, bicycles, and diesel engines, one topic has not yet been covered in great detail: vehicle size. Having traveled throughout the United Kingdom, including several cities in England, Scotland, and Wales, one of most immediately noticeable differences between here and home is the size of the vehicles, with cars driven in England tending to be significantly smaller (and thus more energy efficient) than their counterparts on American freeways. In the States, families tend to have large SUV or minivans, able to carry their children and an entire team of friends as well. Here, cars tend to be significantly smaller, only able to hold four or five individuals at a time. Pickup trucks, a normal vehicle on the highways of American, are nearly non-existent in the United Kingdom, in my personal experience.

 Perhaps one of the reasons for this difference in size is the importance of the car as a symbol of success in American life. As has previously been discussed in this blog, public transit enjoys a much higher, more successful profile in England and Europe than it does in the United States, where car culture continues to reign supreme. As Taras Grescoe, the author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities And Ourselves From the Automobile, says, “Car culture is just so deeply ingrained in our spirit and philosophy in North America, for some people the idea of relying less on them just doesn’t compute” (Kives 2012). This spirit seems to include driving the largest car that you can, rather than one that is just large enough to suit your needs or is more efficient: both traits prized across the pond in England.

 Decreased vehicle size in the UK also leads to sustainability benefits in other ways too,  besides just a smaller carbon footprint. For instance, smaller cars require smaller spaces in general, for parking and driving. This space saving means that parking lots do not need as much room to house the same number of cars in Britain as they do in America, thus cutting down on the amount of land required to put them. With smaller cars, new roads and driveways can also be smaller than those found in America, again sustaining a larger amount of natural landscape. For instance, in a study looking at car sizes on freeways in Detroit, Michigan (incidentally the car capital of North America), the authors found that if all of the cars observed in the study were replaced with sub-compact size cars, at least 8% gains in available freeway space would result (Wasielewski, 1981). This 8% number is generally agreed throughout the industry, as an additional study focused on the speed of queues at traffic intersections, which can be increased through a smaller-size car fleet (Herman et al, 1974). While 8% does seem like a relatively small number, with personal transit as one of the biggest contributions to carbon footprints for most individuals, any decrease in this area, particularly in oversized American cars, is likely to make a big impact.

Works Referenced

 Herman, R., Lam, T., (1974). An experiment on car size effects in traffic. Transport and Road      Research Laboratory, 90-92.

Kives, Bartley (2012). New busway too little: author says route only starts to address city’s          transit needs. Winnipeg Free Press – PRINT EDITION. April 24th 2012

Wasielewski, Paul (1981).  The Effect of Car Size on Headways in Freely Flowing Freeway         Traffic. Transportation Science 15.4: 364-378.


The Business of Doing Your Business

When my best friend visited me over Christmas break, she was confused by something surprising: how to flush the toilets. As my friend is a very intelligent person, she quickly figured it out, but remained curious as to why two buttons were necessary on some toilets.  These were dual-flush toilets, which have been installed in an effort to conserve water and save money.

Did you know that the amount of water necessary to flush a toilet before the 1950’s was 7 gallons or around 30 liters?  That’s some dirty history (sorry, couldn’t resist)!  Today, the amount of water used to flush toilets still takes up about 30% of a home’s water usage, even though the maximum cistern (storage) capacity is 1.6 gallons (around 7 liters) in the US and 6 liters in the UK.

Dual-flush toilets, along with the more traditional low-flush toilets, are a big part of this trend.  Some low-flow systems use up to 6 liters less than older toilets, which adds up to about 16,000 fewer liters of water used per year for a single toilet. That’s over 4,000 US gallons. Because modern UK toilets are required to have a maximum cistern (storage) capacity of 6 liters total, even a savings of 2 to 4 liters per flush can be a reduction of up to 60%. Dual-flush systems give the user a choice between a high-volume or low-volume flush and have both a large and a small flush button. This makes these systems less efficient overall but, one would imagine, the more effective and therefore preferable option. What’s more, normal toilets can be retrofitted to be dual-flush, which saves homeowners the cost of replacing their existing system and cuts down on waste.  Low-flush toilets simply flush using less water and can be flushed using a handle, as we are accustomed in the US, or with the push of a button, as is more common in the UK and Europe.

As of 2009, around 40% of UK homes had installed low-flow or dual-flush toilets, but in my experience they are very common in businesses and other public buildings throughout the UK and Europe.

Energy Saving Trust. (2012). Water-Saving Products. Retrieved 20/4/12. From

Waterwise. (2012). Saving Water: At Home: Indoors. Retrieved 20/4/12. From

Greenworks. (n.d.). Toilets: Water Conserving Toilets. Retrieved 20/4/12. From

Environmental Information Exchange. (n.d.). Water Saving in Toilet Areas. Retrieved 20/4/12. From:

Ideal Standard. (2009). Flush With Pride. Retrieved 20/4/12. From:

Toiletology.  (2011).  Low-Flow (1.6 gal) Toilets.  Retrieved 20/4/12.  From:

Google Calculator was used for all unit conversions.

Charity Shops

Roaming the streets of any English shopping area inevitably leads to one of the many chains of charity shops.  Charities like Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals collect used clothes, dishes, books, bags, linens, and even furniture to sell it back to consumers at reduced prices.  This raises money for the charities, while at the same time providing affordable goods to people in the community.  It is also a great way to recycle.  Buying used merchandise instead of new saves all the energy that it would take to produce a new item.

In terms of clothing, both natural and synthetic fabrics can take a lot of energy to produce.  The cotton has to be grown, processed, then woven into fabric.  Synthetic fibers are generally made from crude oil and the manufacturing method often creates dangerous byproducts.  Even natural fibers like cotton have negative environmental impacts.   Cotton requires a high amount of water and pesticide.  The US is a large producer of cotton, and a lot gets shipped overseas after growing.  Then, processing the cotton into fabric costs energy, and creates unwanted, volatile byproducts.  After production of the clothing, it still has to be shipped to retail stores to be sold, using more energy.  So, manufacturing a new shirt costs an enormous amount of energy compared to buying one that has already been manufactured.  The same theory can be applied to many items beyond clothing.  Buying used books saves all the paper that would have had to go into manufacturing a new copy.  Used furniture also saves on textile production, manufacturing, and shipping energy.  It is always more efficient to buy something used rather than new.

While America certainly has used items available to those who make an effort to find them, it is much simpler in England.  Even in a small city like Norwich, there are at least eight different charity shops in the city center.  In London there are many more.  The location of the shops makes a difference too.  In England, the charity shops are located right next to normal retail stores, allowing customers to easily shop at both in the same trip.  Often in America used clothing stores do not have enough money to sell in a prime area, so they don’t get as much exposure to shoppers.

The prevalence and convenient locations of charity shops in England make reusing clothing, books, and household items very easy, which translates to energy savings.  This system is beneficial for consumers, charities, and the planet.