Münster’s iconic ‘waste of space’ photo keeps on giving

In 1991, a photographer commissioned by the City of Münster’s planning department took a series of photographs for a three-panelled poster that showed the space required to transport 72 people by either car, bus or bicycle. Taken on Prinzipalmarkt, Münster’s High Street, the transportation triptych has since become iconic and is often wheeled out as the main representation of how single-occupancy cars take up a disproportionate amount of road space.

[To be truer to real life – at least until the advent of space-efficient robo-cars – the cars ought to be shown moving because cars in motion take up much more road space due to buffer zone requirements, and it could be argued that subways ought to be included because they take up zero road space].


The photo has been much copied over the years. Here’s a recreation of the photo in Reykyavik, Iceland:

The latest adaptation of the photo was created in Australia on 9th September. 69 volunteers, 69 bicycles, 60 cars and one bus gathered in Canberra to recreate the Münster photograph.

“The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” said former professional cyclist Stephen Hodge of Australia’s equivalent to Bike Hub, the Cycling Promotion Fund. The CPF was one of the organisations which paid for the photo to be recreated (cash was also raised via online donations from Go! Alliance, a ‘transport choices’ body).

Hodge added:

“In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. As Australia’s population swells and our cities experience ever increasing congestion we need to get smarter about how we use existing road space—including investing more in alternatives such as public transport and cycling—if we are to move people more efficiently and effectively.”

Münster’s iconic photograph is much copied (the Comic Sans font used on a 2001 version of the pic led to a call for remixes without the offensive font) but was itself based on an earlier illustration. The original was published in a 1979 book from the Ministry of Culture, Recreation and Social Work of the Netherlands. De Recreatieve Stad (‘Towards a recreational city’), by R Dufour, was published to “stimulate the growing interest in…improvement of the city character, [via a] decrease in motorized traffic, increased freedom for citizens to build or rebuild their housing, construction of bicycle and walking paths, availability of open air recreation, cultural programmes and shops.”

The illustration put into physical form the ideas of Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. In his 1978 book From Energy and equity: Toward a History of Needs Illich wrote:

“The bicycle uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles. Of all these vehicles, only the bicycle really allows people to go from door to door without walking. The cyclist can reach new destinations of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

“Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored.”

Variants of the Münster poster – showing how bicycles are space efficient – include a photograph used on ads for British folding bike maker, Brompton:

And there’s a car-shaped bicycle parking stand by Cyclehoop of London which can accommodate ten bicycles in the space of one car:

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