The effect of private car dependence on land use

In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed that

The more space that is provided for cars in cities, the greater becomes the need for use of cars, and hence for still more space for them.

In real life, we do not suddenly jump five million square feet of city roadbed to sixteen million square feet, and so the implications of accommodating a few more cars and a few more cars and a few more cars are a little harder to see. But swiftly or slowly, the positive feed-back is at work. Swiftly or slowly, greater accessibility by car is inexorably accompanied both by less convenience and efficiency of public transport, and by thinning down and smearing-out of uses, and hence by more need for cars.

Horsham, where I live, is not a great American city – the subject of Jacobs’ book – or even a city. It is a town with a population of just 55,000 people, and with an approximate radius of only two miles. Yet despite its relatively small size, it has an extraordinary amount of space, and building, dedicated to the temporary storage of motor vehicles.

The implications for sustainable transport are not quite as severe as they might be in a city, where demand for space is much higher, and where the resulting ‘smearing-out’ Jacobs talks of is more serious when it comes to the consequences for transport choices. Nevertheless, in towns, the more space that is dedicated to parking inevitably means lower density of use, and the balance tips ever so slightly more in favour of the motor car as a mode of transport, and against walking and cycling. This is to say nothing of the large roads and junctions that are needed to accommodate the flows of ever-increasing numbers of motor vehicles, which in turn do much to discourage walking and cycling as modes of transport.

More than that, the use of urban space for car parking – which is, to repeat, only a temporary storing of motor vehicles – is extraordinarily wasteful. As Jacobs writes

Duplication of car parking is also familiar in suburbs: the schools, the supermarkets, the churches, the shopping centres, the clinics, the movie, all the residences, must have their own parking lots and all this duplicate parking lies idle for much of the time.

Jacobs also argued that car parks disrupt and disorganise the way we allocate public space in cities (and by analogy, in towns). The more we ‘duplicate’, the greater that disruption and disorganisation.

An examination of the idle space in Horsham is instructive. We have car parks for sixth form colleges.

Supermarket car parks (the first one built on a former school playing field).

Underground car parks (the first for the council, the second for a supermarket).

7-storey, 500 space car parks.

4-storey, 900 space car parks (this one, sadly, a regular suicide spot).

4-storey, 330 space car parks.

Secondary school car parks.

More council parking.

Railway station car parks.

Town centre public car parks.

Pet store car parks.

Church car parks.Car parks for masons.

Retail park car parks.

To stress again, all of these car parks, lying idle, are within a two mile radius from the town centre. And, while I’ve picked out some of the more obvious examples, there are plenty of large car parks I haven’t managed to get around to photographing. Or might even be unaware of.

In reality, I’ve only really scraped the surface of the amount of land space in Horsham that is dedicated to the temporary storage of motor vehicles, without even considering the amount of land space that is give over to their movement, and their storage at home. This is duplicated storage.

Storage at home isn’t so much of a problem; cars are often necessary for longer trips, or for transporting cargo that genuinely can’t be transported by bicycle or by public transport. The photographs shown here, however, are the direct consequence of a transport policy that facilitates and accommodates car journeys for short trips. There would be no need for such a vast allocation of space and storage if the bicycle modal share in Horsham didn’t stand at around a rather miserable 1% of all trips.

Sadly, the land use consequences of our unhealthy (in all senses of the word) dependence on the private motor vehicle for short trips are generally unnoticed and unappreciated; we’ve become used, over time, to the sprawling tarmac acres, and the looming ugly concrete buildings, that are necessary for accommodating our vehicles temporarily while we pick up shopping, go to the cinema or church, drop children off at school, or sit working at a desk. Doubtless if we could transport a Horsham resident of the 1930s through time he or she would be shocked; but for us it is mere invisible background.


FootnoteJoe Dunckley has pointed out to me that, so far, only one of the ‘Learning and Implementation’ sessions at the forthcoming ‘Sustainable Transport 2012’ conference has been filled. Appropriately enough, for a conference aimed at ‘enabling sustainable transport choices’, it is on the subject of Automated Car Parks.

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16 Responses to The effect of private car dependence on land use

  1. I’m guessing at least the multi-storey car parks charge? That’s probably seen as another “stealth tax” as it’s widely regarded as the proper thing to do is to provide free parking 🙂 Funny how people forget that the land they are parking on carries a value and the car park won’t maintain or clean itself for free.

    I remember on one visit our local town centre in Croydon on a Sunday morning and using one of the quieter car parks opposite a church. One which is pay and display but was amazed to see some of the church leaders out handing out special signs to put in the windscreen of the vehicles of their congregation! I could only assume therefore that parking is a god-given right!

    Bearing in mind the church is served by 2 tram stops (one right outside and the other a mere 2 minutes walk round the corner) as well as multiple bus routes quite why some of these people arrived by car I don’t know as most didn’t appear disabled, at which point they could have parked using their blue badges.

  2. Henz says:

    This ties in rather nicely with the recent IPPR report on motoring, which concluded that motoring is subsidised for at least 2/3 of the cost to society. [1]

    The IPPR decided not to include the “opportunity cost of land [devoted to the car]”.

    Plots for a single, detached home in the South East of England (let alone Horsham) cost up to £500,000.

    The space you show in those images is sufficient for approaching 50 houses (judged by eye), that is up to £25m worth of land being devoted to motor vehicles.

    The land cost argument is strong enough, but paving over school fields and greenfield sites to encourage an unhealthy and polluting activity is absurd.


    • pm says:

      The failure to account for that “opportunity cost” is one of the major ways in which motorists and their oganisations tell blatant untruths about the true cost of motor vehicie use, in my opinion. Somehow the right to free (valuable, urban) land for parking has become taken entirely for granted by motorists.

      What’s almost funny is the push-me-pull-me battle that goes on between motorists and themselves over the competing demand for more on-street parking spaces and unobstructed throughfares. Parking restrictions are periodically introduced to satisfy motorists’ demand for the latter, only to progressively be relaxed again due to their contradictory demand for the former.

  3. Andreas says:

    A fantastic informative post – hard not to get angry when you see these huge empty car parking lots in prime locations within the city. Beyond the simple waste of money and space, it’s hard to estimate the damage to society as a whole. I was going to link to the study mentioned above by Henz but he beat me to the punch! Oh, and picked up a copy of The Life and Death of Great American cities as I feel it will be of much interest.

  4. AB says:

    Great article.

  5. davidflint says:

    It would be interesting to know the land area devoted to car parks in Horsham – both absolutely and as a fraction of the town area.

  6. This empty land is economically almost completely unproductive. Only when people park does some money flow, and it’s not really generating wealth even when it does flow.

    The current government want to kick-start the economy. How about re-arranging things so that these car parks can instead be used for economic and community benefit: perhaps new car-free affordable housing for local workers, new small independent shops, public parks and attractions to drive tourism, market gardens or allotments, new small business units?

    • That’s a great idea and something that actually does happen with one of the car parks in Croydon – on a Sunday morning a few levels are used to host a boot fair 🙂 It then means the car park can charge each car for their pitch (instead of the normal parking charge), the sellers make a bit of money and the surrounding local business can benefit from increased footfall. Also as it’s covered you don’t have the usual fun of navigating a muddy field to find a proper bargain if it rains 😀

  7. Don says:

    I occasionally read urbanism blogs such as The Urbanophile ( and This Big City ( I’ve learned from these that many cities in the developed world are increasing their population and population density. There are subsequent benefits from a reduced need for cars and easier access to public transport, walking and cycling. As a result, knowledge and ideas can flow more freely and businesses have greater access to skilled people.

    I don’t claim to understand how much of this works, but it seems likely to me that our future workers/tax payers will increasingly live in ‘dense’ towns and cities, with good transport links and better access to employment and entertainment.

    As fuel and transport costs increase, I can’t help thinking that young people will look at places like Horsham and desert them for greater opportunity elsewhere. Unless Horsham and towns of its ilk change in the ways suggested by Fonant and southlondoncyclist, surely they will wither and die?

    • davidflint says:

      Well perhaps Don. You could also say that as people get larger incomes and start families they will seek the suburbs. As fuel prices rise they may prefer suburbs with good public transport and cycle ways and houses with good insulation. Is there some reason that Horsham can’t provide these things?

  8. Thought provoking post, thanks for sharing.

  9. Dave C says:

    As usual, a very good post, it would be nice if could contrast this with cycle parking facilities such as Sheffield stands – If there are any.

  10. pm says:

    Excellent post.
    Are there any cycle locking posts in any of those car-parks, by the way? Recently been irritated to find myself visiting supermarkets (long way from home), to find hundreds of (mostly unused) car parking places and not a single bike locking post anywhere.

  11. Ravindra Srinivas Rao says:

    30% of land in a city is used up for roads. Then there is lot of land used up for parking. It is estimated that in Europe around 1.6% of the land is used up for road transport. In India when they build roads more than 200 trees/km are destroyed. It is time that the Car manufacturers, Petroleum industry, Road/Bridge builders get together with government support and create a private initiative to adopt a new technology which is being developed for Low Cost Sustainable Transport. The cost of petroleum products is increasing because the “nouveau riche” in the developing Asian countries are ready to pay any price for petrol. If the developed countries invest in building Low Cost Sustainable Transport in Asian countries they will get returns in the form of low cost petrol. In the developing countries rich people need petrol while in the developed countries it is the common man who needs petrol. In Asian countries owning a car is a status symbol and because of the bad public transport anyone who makes money, the first temptation is to own a car. The Asian countries need public transport/transit so instead of building roads they should adopt the Low Cost Sustainable Transport.

  12. Paul Jakma says:

    There’s a term for this “Pensacola Parking Syndrome”, referring to how this city ripped down more and more of its old town in order to provide parking lots, thus destroying its character in the process and reducing the number of people who wanted to visit. Just have a look at,-87.213566&spn=0.005797,0.004469&sll=52.8382,-2.327815&sspn=11.773707,18.303223&hnear=Pensacola,+Escambia,+Florida,+United+States&t=h&z=18 – and scroll around!

    See also:

  13. Henz says:

    I’ve just run across (yet) another article which considers the negative externalities of driving, including land use;

    “To give away valuable parking spaces for free is hugely inefficient. It encourages too many people to drive, and it encourages people to stay in free spots longer than the welfare-maximising amount of time. … free parking encourages drivers to circle as they wait for a new spot to open, thereby adding to the congestion problem.”

    The article conclude that (in New York) there are ” too many cars [and too little space allocated to cycling]. From an economic perspective.”

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