New research from Transport & Environment (T&E) has found that cars in the UK are getting too big for British roads, exceeding the 180cm minimum for on-street parking. On average cars were found to be getting 1cm wider every two years.
The average width of new cars expanded to 180.3 cm in the first half of 2023, up from 177.8 cm in 2018, the T&E research finds. Data compiled by the ICCT confirms the same trend in the two decades up to 2020. The UK was the country with second-widest cars on average just under Germany and was higher than the average across Europe and the UK.
New cars in the UK are subject to the same maximum width, 255 cm, as buses and trucks. T&E said that unless the UK width limit for cars is reviewed, large SUVs and pick-ups will continue to expand to the cap meant for heavy-duty vehicles.
More than half of new cars sold in 2023 were too wide for the minimum specified on-street parking space (180 cm) in major UK cities. Off-street parking is now a tight squeeze even for the average new car (180 cm wide), while large luxury SUVs often make it impossible. Measuring around 200 cm wide, large luxury SUVs leave very little space and as much of the UK is densely populated, it piles yet more pressure on roads from competing uses. Growing width of these cars is going to exacerbate those pressures. A similarly densely-populated city, Paris, will vote on tripling parking fees for SUVs on 4 February.
The growth in size is very pronounced among large luxury SUVs: in the most egregious cases, the Land Rover Defender grew by 20.6 cm and the Mercedes X5 by 6 cm in just six years. In 2023, Volvo went 4.1 cm wider with its EX90. Carmakers are using this growth of the largest SUVs to also increase the width of vehicles in the midsize and compact segments.
The trend towards wider vehicles is reducing the road space available for other vehicles and cyclists while parked cars are further encroaching on footpaths. The wider designs have also enabled the height of vehicles to be further raised, despite crash data showing a 10 cm increase in the height of vehicle fronts carries a 30% higher risk of fatalities in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.
The UK has inherited EU legislation on vehicle width, which has not been changed since Brexit. The UK seeks to keep EU derived legislation under review and to reform it where it can support domestic UK objectives but an explicit reason cited by the government for leaving the EU was to have the power to diverge from EU rules.
T&E UK is calling on a mandated width limit for cars with an approval process that is consistent with EU regulations, to reduce compliance costs for car makers. It is calling for the regulations to come into effect from 1 January 2030 which would be consistent with the changes to EU regulations proposed by T&E.
Richard Hebditch, UK Director for T&E UK, said:
“The trend of cars getting wider has been progressing for decades and that trend will continue until the UK sets stricter limits. Currently we allow new cars to be as wide as trucks. This has meant our roads are now home to big SUVs and American style pick-up trucks that are parking on our footpaths, endangering pedestrians and cyclists and making everyone else on our roads less safe.”
Sarah McMonagle, director of external affairs at Cycling UK, said:
“In general, people driving wider vehicles are more likely to pass people cycling more closely than those driving narrower ones. This is particularly the case on narrow rural lanes or on residential streets with lots of parking, where those on bikes are often bullied off the road to make way. We need government action to stop motor manufacturers fuelling our addiction to ever more obese cars. Bigger cars are not better, they’re less sustainable, make our roads more dangerous, and take up more space, increasing congestion.”
Oliver Lord, UK Head of the Clean Cities Campaign said:
“Our dense cities are already dominated by cars so the last thing we need is for ever larger luxury SUVs. The growing number of cars that don’t fit on our streets is absurd and it should ring alarm bells in every town hall. Unless we act now, more and more of our public space will be taken away.”
Dr Rachel Lee, Policy and Research Manager, Living Streets:
“Design standards for lane widths and parking bays haven’t changed, but vehicles keep getting wider. They take up too much space already. Both vehicle widths and road space allocated to them urgently need to be reviewed and updated, to stop yet more pavement being taken away from people walking and wheeling.”
Leo Murray, co-director of climate charity Possible, said:
“This analysis shows that the profit-driven trend to autobesity can be measured in cars’ expanding waistbands as well as their increasing weight, and the negative impacts have become impossible to miss on any crowded inner city street, with new SUVs spilling out of their parking spaces and blocking footways and other vehicles. Previous research has found that ‘downsizing’ policies to limit the size and weight of new private cars could be surprisingly effective at driving down carbon emissions too, so we are delighted to join T&E’s call for a new width limit on UK car sales from 2030. In the meantime, forward looking local authorities can help by only issuing on-street residential parking permits for cars that actually fit inside the spaces provided.”
Notes to editors:
 T&E compared the top 100 cars sold in 2018 to the top 100 in the first half of 2023.
 Average car width in the EU increased from 170.5 cm in 2001 to 180.2 cm in 2020. The International Council on Clean Transportation, European vehicle market statistics – Pocketbook 2021/22. Link.
 VIAS Institute (2023). Des voitures plus lourdes, plus hautes et plus puissantes pour une sécurité routière à deux vitesses ?Link. The study found that a pedestrian or cyclist hit by a pick-up truck is 90% more likely to be seriously injured and almost 200% more likely to die than if they were struck by a normal car.