We were back in the UK over Christmas and I was casting my planning and transport eye over what I saw, looking for the differences between the UK and North America. For the purposes of this blog, today I will highlight just one of them.

One of the obvious differences between towns in the UK and North America (or the Metro Vancouver area anyway) is how the roads and blocks are laid out. In Metro Vancouver blocks and roads were laid out in advance of development with straight roads running north – south and east – west to produce roughly square or rectangular blocks. In the UK the road network is much more historical with the straightest roads ironically sometimes being some of the oldest (ancient ‘roman road’ alignments). Block sizes and shapes are far more random and in many areas are the result of incremental development over hundreds of years. Below are two maps, taken from Google, showing the road layout near where I live in Vancouver, BC and in Dover, UK, where my wife’s family live. They are both the same scale.

Vancouver, BC

Dover, UK

Although the density is obviously very different, I use these two examples as I live in one of them and recently visited the other. Dover’s topography is far more evident in the way the road system has developed.

The roads themselves also vary wildly. In the UK the historical nature of the road means typically narrower cross sections than you would plan for if constructing a new road today. In addition, most of the houses do not have off street parking and laneways are not typical. Therefore, these narrow roads also have to accommodate on-street parking. Finally, some of these narrow roads also serve a collector road function and therefore carry moderate volumes of traffic.

Below are two images taken from Google’s Streetview (sorry – for a blog that professes to be at least partially about photography I should really have taken the photos myself). They show street views from the two maps above. One is of Alberni Street in Vancouver and one is from Elms Vale Road, Dover. Although I don’t have the numbers to back this up, I would guess these roads carry similar volumes of traffic on a daily basis.

Dover, UK

Alberni Street, Vancouver BC

The differences are obvious! To North American’s the Dover street might appear a little scary. How do you navigate such a narrow road, especially when the bus approaches?! Well, narrow roads have advantages. People tend to drive slowly – the speed limit is self enforcing. Drivers often have to give way to oncoming traffic and have to ‘pull in’ between parked cars to let this happen. North America is still very standards driven but I am not saying that these narrower widths should be adopted or that they are better. (In fact, the resulting narrow sidewalks/ footpaths caused several problems for us and our stroller/ pushchair, while we were there.) What I am trying to say is that when you don’t have all the space you might like to have, people adapt and things keep moving. If a little slower – which is probably a good thing.

Finally, I would say that a lot of other things have had to fit in with this generally narrower street geometry. You will not usually find the huge trucks and full size SUVs traveling about on these roads. Plus, ALL vehicles in the UK are able to push their side mirrors/ wing mirrors in. I remember being shocked when I realized most side mirrors did NOT push in over here.

So, in conclusion, you make best use of what you have and it usually finds some way of working itself out, even if there are a few compromises along the way.