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I drove my car in almost every country in continental Europe. Recently, I experienced driving in England for the first time. But it doesnt matter where I went, from London to Rottingdean or Bath, everywhere, even on the highway, all roads are narrower than in any country in Europe. Especially country roads were ridiculous to navigate, with one single extremely narrow lane for each direction making each pass of a oncoming vehicle a near accident experience. Even more ridiculous were the narrow parking lots and parking garage ramps. Two cars can park perfectly beside each other but none of them will be able to open their doors conveniently. What is the reason for this seeming miniaturization of Englands automobile infrastructure?

To be clear, I am talking specifically about England here, I dont know if the same can be said about other parts of the UK as I did not drive there.

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    What kind of car did you drive?
    – Willeke
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 22:03
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    Perhaps it’s not that England is miniaturised but that other countries have oversized? Unless you’re driving a massive SUV all main and most country roads are perfectly driveable. As for parking bays, AFAIK the last time a standard for parking bays was drawn up was 1994, when cars were considerably smaller. The solution if you’re driving a larger car is to look for an end space.
    – Traveller
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 23:52
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    I agree that there are many narrow roads in England, but it is hard to believe that you have much driving experience in most other European countries if you claim that to be unique for England. Commented May 11, 2023 at 7:18
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    Echoing Tor-Einar. As a UK resident who has driven a lot in Europe, I don't see this. Tiny streets are common in many places in Europe. Some of the tightest car parks that I have encountered have been in continental Europe. Of course, the US is very different. Compared to the US, our roads and parking spaces are tiny but so is most of Europe.
    – badjohn
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 8:39
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    As a Brit who now lives in Germany and has driven in over half of all EU countries, I think your claim is entirely untrue and I suspect that you think it is true because you are used to driving on the other side of the road. Commented May 11, 2023 at 9:30

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There is a psychological aspect to this.

In the UK the steering wheel is on the right, and we drive on the left. Our perception is that we are far away from the near side verge. We are used to it. On the continent, it is the opposite.

However, if those of us in the UK go abroad, or those on the continent come to the UK, still driving our usual vehicle, then the position we are driving means the driver is closer to the verge that what we normally encounter in our own country. The effect of this is, our senses are heightened and we are far more aware of it and sense some danger and narrowing of the road. Some of it is purely psychological.

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    +1; It's even worse with hedges that feel like they're just outside your window. But at least it means that drivers on the wrong side of the road for their car's design give me more room on the bike (I ride more than I drive, especially on narrow lanes). But of course this doesn't apply if the OP rented a RHD car in the UK. Then the stress of unfamiliar controls makes everything feel harder Commented May 11, 2023 at 10:17
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    It's exactly the same in Europe but it's a mirror image. You're still on the inward side of the road. You're right though, when the steering wheel mismatches the driving side, it feels weird. Commented May 11, 2023 at 23:40
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They aren't. Roads and parking spaces are about the same size in the UK and in continental Europe. UK car spaces might even be on the large side.

Let's compare some modern standards for a dual carriageway with two lanes in each direction:

  • UK (source): 7.3m in each direction.
  • Ireland (via Wikipedia): 7m in each direction.
  • France (source): 3.5m per lane, so 7m in each direction.

Minimums for a rural road with two-way traffic:

  • UK (source): 5.5m.
  • France (source): normally 7m (2×3.5m) for new roads, but many rural roads can be down to 5m.

Minimums in cities for a street:

  • UK (source): the minimum street width is normally 5.5m for two-way traffic, but can occasionally get down to 4.8m. Minimum 6m for a bus route.
  • France (source): 3.25m or even 3m per lane.

Sizes of a parking space:

  • UK (source): minimum 2.4m×4.8m for a parking bay. Minimum width 1.8m for an on-street parking lane.
  • France (source): minimum 2.3m×5m for a parking bay. Minimum 1.8m for an on-street parking lane mentined in Wikipedia).

Conclusion: if there is any difference, it would be because the UK has more older roads that don't conform to modern standards, not because UK roads of comparable type and vintage are narrower. I don't have numbers for that, but I doubt that it is the case if you actually compare like for like — low-traffic country roads, modern highways, historic city centers, modern urban developments...

country roads were ridiculous to navigate, with one single extremely narrow lane for each direction making each pass of a oncoming vehicle a near accident experience.

This is my experience of country roads in France. The fields on either side of the road existed long before automobiles, and wider roads weren't needed back then. Same as in the UK.

Even more ridiculous were the narrow parking lots and parking garage ramps. Two cars can park perfectly beside each other but none of them will be able to open their doors conveniently

This is my experience of parking garages in Paris. The city was largely built before cars, so parking has to be crammed in very little space. Same as any UK town that was built before cars.

Europe tends to waste significantly less space on cars than most of the US, but the UK is not different from the rest of Europe.

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    Conclusion: if there is any difference, it would be because the UK has more older roads that don't conform to modern standards is perhaps a little buried, but very true. Your figures for urban streets do show a tighter minimum than France, for new stuff, but a lot of new stuff is built to a different set of rules as it doesn't have to support through traffic Commented May 11, 2023 at 14:28
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A combination of historical factors and legal/practical ones.

One is simply that England was the first country to undergo the industrial revolution. Considerable urban sprawl developed long before the idea of the motor car even existed, and yet more before the idea that a regular person could afford one did. And unlike in much of mainland europe, very little of this was ever razed by war. So there's a lot of narrow urban streets (with little parking, and parked cars tend to cause crowding) even in "non-historical" areas. Continential europe provides far more super-narrow streets, but they're usually restricted to small medieval central areas.

Another factor is that England is very densely populated, so land is expensive. On the European mainland, only the Benelux countries are comparably dense. Although similar narrow roads are also prevalent in Scotland and Wales, so that perhaps isn't a major factor.

Also relevant is the nature of land ownership in the UK. Almost all land is privately owned - public land is very rare, and any "common" or "unowned" land can be seized by a private person or company that wishes to do so. Land rights are also fairly strong. This makes it legally difficult as well as expensive in terms of construction, to widen all the country lanes that exist on the route of some historical cart track. This combined with the fact that British governments dislike investing in infrastructure (or any kind of investment) compared to a "typical" European government.

I can't say I've ever noticed any differnce in size between European major routes and parking spaces and English ones.

With regards to parking spaces, here the extremely rapid inflation in car sizes over the past 15 years is relevant. The "typical" car has grown very rapidly, having only grown slowly for the 40 or so years before that. And places are reluctant to reduce the number of spaces available by making parking spaces bigger.

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    "any "common" or "unowned" land can be seized by a private person or company that wishes to do so" that was true back in the times of the Inclosure Acts, but definitely isn't nowadays. Look at the trouble even extremely wealthy people have rerouting a simple footpath, and it becomes clear how any modern attempt to privatise the commons is resisted on all quarters.
    – MadHatter
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 8:17
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    @MadHatter Public footpaths are public rights of way over privatley owned land and have fairly strong legal proteciton that they must remain open - but the land is private and the owner can do whatever they want as long as a route through remains. It is not related to the ability to claim land, which can still be done under legal methods such as adverse posession. IF there is no owner to object, that adverse posession is pretty straightforward.
    – CMaster
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 8:32
  • @CMaster based on MadHatter's story link it seems like they can do whatever they want, the court can fine them, and nothing happens if they don't pay the fine. Commented May 12, 2023 at 11:31
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Single track country roads are common, but rarely required except for the last little bit of the journey. Unfortunately some route planners seen to like to shave a couple of minutes of the trip time by using miles of them. I've come across a good few in France too. Widening would be very expensive (land purchase as well as construction) and being so old they tend to be too bendy to be fast anyway.

In urban areas, the roads and the houses they serve aren't so much narrow as used to store too many cars - when much of our housing stock was built, car ownership for normal people wasn't a thing.

The network of main roads should get you very close to your destination, so you only have to use such narrow roads for the last few miles (with exceptions for some very rural areas, but they're still not needed as through routes). Motorways (blue signs, numbered Mx or Ax(M)) are high capacity, with wide lanes and are intended to be the first choice for long distance (e.g. the M4 from London takes you to near Bath). There are dual carriageway A roads (overlapping eith designated "trunk" roads) to a slightly lower standard. Then you have single carriageway A roads, like the A46 that links Bath with the M4. Another quick road despite the cotswold hills. These can also be classed as trunk roads. Most villages can be reached by B roads which are often wide enough for a lane in each direction, but not always.

Given all that, country lanes don't need to be fast roads. In fact in some places where a road is just wide enough for a central white line, it's omitted to encourage slower, more cautious driving.

As for parking spaces, it's largely a matter of old standards being based on the typical cars of decades ago, which were far smaller than much of what you see now. There's little incentive to repaint bigger spaces to modern standards as you can get more cars into smaller spaces - more profit if you're charging for parking. Even if parking is free as at a supermarket, repainting costs money and reduces capacity for customers. I drive a Transit campervan, and for width it's OK in a typical supermarket space (being careful as I open the door). That struggles with length, but the solution is normally to park at the furthest edge of the car park, where I can overhang the back of the space, and if I o stick out, I'm not massively in people's way. That also generally means I can have a free space on at least one side.

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  • Btw what do you use for navigation? Waze has always been too willing to use very small roads (that, in a sense, is its selling point) but over the last couple of years Google Maps has got far too willing to do the same, and in ways that are hard to spot on a phone screen even if you have some familiarity with the area/map. Commented May 11, 2023 at 6:57
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    Wales and Scotland are similar but more so once you get away from urbsn areas - more lightly travelled single track roads Commented May 11, 2023 at 7:08
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    30 years later I have still a vivid memory of Scotland's passing places.
    – gboffi
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 11:08
  • The OP isn't asking about single track country roads but very narrow two-lane roads: "one single extremely narrow lane for each direction". Single track roads are very rare unless you're driving to private premises in the countryside; there are only a very few trunk routes that are single-track outside of the Scottish islands and far north. I'd guess most people in the UK use them very seldom unless they live at the end of one, or perhaps they are delivery persons, rural vets, or keen hillwalkers.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 13:59

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