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.


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