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).
Secondary school car parks.
More council parking.
Railway station car parks.
Town centre public car parks.
Pet store 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.
Footnote – Joe 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.