Worth remembering (when comparing ‘the US’ to ‘Europe’)

post by Curiousguy · 2013-04-13T20:35:24.067Z · score: 11 (21 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 27 comments

I posted the post below on my own blog a while back, but a friend of mine suggested that it might be a good idea to cross-post a little bit of my stuff here as well. I've made a few changes to the post at the bottom, but it's pretty much the same post as the one I posted back then. Okay, here goes:

...

People often note that it’s a bad idea to compare small European countries with a country that is so big that it is comparable in size to the continent that the small country is a part of. I’ll go into a bit more detail about the differences in this post.

So, in a comment I left over at MR I noted that:

‘The United States is 3 times as big as EU-15 used to be, and EU-15 included pretty much all of the countries in Western Europe that people from the US like to compare to their own country (Italy, Germany, Spain, France, UK, Sweden…)’

Here’s the map:

It’s not ‘completely true’, but it’s very close – the area of EU-15 was 3,367,154 km2 (link). The area of the United States is 9.83 million km2.

Some more random numbers, I used wikipedia’s numbers and I couldn’t be bothered to add links because it would have taken forever and nobody would follow them anyway – you can look it up if something sounds really wrong. Texas: 696,200 km2. France: 674,843 km2. (Metropolitan France – i.e. ‘France-France (+Corsica)’: 551,695 km2). Spain: 504,030 km2. California: 423,970 km2. Germany: 357,021 km2. Denmark: 43,075 km2. Netherlands: 41,543 km2.

The red bit in the picture below is larger than any country in Europe which is not Russia (or another way to visualize it: That bit is actually significantly larger than the Iberian Peninsula in the map above). Maybe the scales aren’t completely similar, but they’re actually not really that far off:

If you take a trip in Europe from Venezia, Italy to Amsterdam, Netherlands, you’ll travel ~1200-1300 kilometers depending on the route. The lenght and width of Texas are both in the neighbourhood of ~1,250 km.

Now, Arizona is another southern US state with an area of 295,254 km2 and a population of 6,4 million people. The Netherlands’ population is estimated at 16.85 million. If you combine the populations of Netherlands (16,85), Denmark (5,5) and Belgium (11 mill), those 33 million people are distributed over an area of ~115.000 km2. The (smaller) combined populations of Texas (25,1) and Arizona (6,4) have roughly a million square kilometers to deal with.

Does it make better sense to compare Texas with France? And those small countries with, say, the state of New York? It probably would. But it’s really hard to find good matches here, in particular due to the problem with population density differences. If you do find areas that match on this metric, odds are they don’t exactly match on other key metrics. The population density of the United States as a whole is 33,7/km2. If you scale that up by a factor of ten, you get to the third most densely populated state, Massachusetts (324.1 /km2). The population density of Massachusetts is somewhat lower than both Belgium’s (354.7/km2) and Netherlands’ (403/km2). The population density of Germany (229/km2) is comparable to that of Maryland (229.7/km2), which is in the US top five – Germany is almost 7 times as densely populated as ‘the US as a whole’. The population density of Great Britain is 277/km2, comparable to Connecticut’s (285.0/km2) – the state of Connecticut is btw. #4 on the US list. Italy is at 201.2/km2, between Delaware and Maryland – it would be on the top 6 if it was a US state. Americans like to use the expression ‘France and Germany’, but at least in terms of population density, there’s a huge difference between these two countries that I’m not sure they’re aware of: The population density of France is much lower (116/km2) than that of Germany, and rather more comparable to that of Spain (93/km2). All US states outside the top ten have population densities well below 100/km2, so note that even though Spain and France are relatively sparcely populated in a Western European context, France would be well within the top 10 and Spain just outside top 10 if the two countries were US states. The average population density of the entire European Union, including a lot of Eastern European countries most Americans couldn’t find on a map, is about the same as that of France, 116.2/km2; 3.5 times as high as the US average.

The population density of Iceland is 3.1/km2. As mentioned, the US average is 33.7/km2 and Belgium’s density is 354.7/km2. Remember these magnitudes. And yes, I know that the US population density is not homogenous and that a lot of it is almost empty. The population density of Europe isn’t homogenous either – to take an example, approximately one eighth of the German population – 10 million people – live in the very small Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (7,110 square kilometers, or less than 2% of the area). A fifth (12+ mill) of the French population live in the Paris metropolitan area. On the other hand, the population density of Norway, which even though she is a bit of an outlier is still very much a part of Western Europe, is 12,5/km2, comparable on that metric to, say, Nevada (9.02/km2) in the US.

If you look at differences in the US internally, when it comes to the 10 most densely populated states the one that is situated the most to the west of these is Ohio (the state border of which is still within 500 km of the Atlantic Ocean). Here’s a map:

Remember here that these numbers are people/sq mile, so to compare the numbers there with the rest of the numbers in this post you need to divide by ~2,6 or so. I found this comparable map of Europe convenient both because it gives density limits in sq. miles and because it’s a lot more fine grained than just data on the national level:

Last of all: Languages! Here’s the European map:

Let’s just say that a map of the US would look different. Yeah, a lot has been written about the Spanish/English-thing going on in the US. Well, intranational language barriers and -linguistic diversity aren’t exactly unknown phenomena in Europe either, despite the small size of the countries involved. A thing worth remembering here is also that in many of the bilingual regions of Europe highlighted here, English is the third language. If you’re a US tourist visiting some European bilingual region and you’re annoyed people don’t speak much English, ask yourself how many areas of the US you can think of where people can hold conversations in, say, English, Spanish and French.

Did you know that 90 percent of the human population lives on the Northern Hemisphere? I didn’t, before I wrote this.

27 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-14T09:01:24.769Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The map of languages of Europe (as most such maps I've seen) has some very weird things. Why the hell would “Toscan” [sic] be considered a separate language from Italian and Neapolitan wouldn't? Describing most of Ireland as a “bilinguism [sic] situation” sounds like wishful thinking -- Irish might be official but very few people speak it regularly (not counting school classes and the like) except on the west coast.

comment by vallinder · 2013-04-14T15:13:55.709Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Being from southern Sweden myself, I was also quite amused to see that Scanian – which is really just an accent – is marked as a separate language.

comment by ThrustVectoring · 2013-04-16T13:39:54.983Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The difference between languages and accents is largely a manner of degree. The boundary lines are completely arbitrary. You can pair mutually intelligible modes of speech together in a chain and have non-mutually-intelligible ends of the chain.

comment by vallinder · 2013-04-19T17:05:12.069Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed, my point was rather that if Scanian is included, so should ten or so other accents as well.

comment by Laoch · 2015-11-27T12:24:51.145Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I live in Ireland. Ireland is definitely not a bilingual country.

comment by prase · 2013-04-15T21:58:44.280Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Most Irishmen at least know a little Gaelic as they have to learn it at school. The map has worse inaccuracies. Occitan and Low German aren't even official and are spoken by tiny minorities, contrary to the impression one could easily get from the map. Ingrian is effectively dead with 500 speakers according to Wikipedia. The Czech-German bilingual area in western Bohemia is completely made up (it even doesn't correspond to the pre-WWII German speaking area). The Hungarian speaking area in Romania should be centered a bit more to the north-west. Breton isn't and never wasn't spoken in the pink-dotted locations. There is a German minority in Polish Silesia, but again the area should be smaller.

Not speaking about the language names and their spelling which reveal French origins of the map.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-16T18:07:52.042Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Most Irishmen at least know a little Gaelic as they have to learn it at school.

Yeah, and most of them, a few years out of school, can hardly remember enough of it to understand a weather forecast. By that standard, most of northern Europe should be marked as bilingual with English.

)Anyway, I was just exemplifying. That map, as most similar maps, is pretty much atrocious. I suggest reaching your wallet to see if it's still there¹ whenever you hear people talking about minority languages.)


  1. Well, sometimes I find more money in it than there would have been otherwise, such as when University College Dublin offered me a three-day Irish course in Donegal (including travel, accommodation, breakfasts, the welcome dinner, singing workshops and stuff) for €100, which would have been more or less the market price for travel and accommodation alone.
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-04-13T21:30:06.716Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure how important all this is, but I had no idea so much of Africa was above the equator, and I have an unpleasant suspicion that I assumed the equator was more or less at the upper edge of Africa/lower edge of Europe because it just seemed tidier. Is tidiness/simplicity a named bias?

comment by knb · 2013-04-13T23:12:17.684Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

People are often surprised by how far south the United States is compared to Europe. Chicago is on the same latitude as Rome. North Dakota is parallel to the wine growing region of Bordeaux in France. It seems like people consider the US/Europe to be parallel, and South America/Africa parallel.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-14T09:03:03.264Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The Czech Republic isn't any further east than central and southern Italy. And certain people (not me) are surprised that certain parts of Ireland are further west than mainland Portugal. (Generally speaking, it's like people's mental map of the world is rotated around 20° clockwise.)

comment by prase · 2013-04-15T22:19:11.958Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As for the Portugal/Ireland thing, one could easily blame the conically projected maps which conventionally have the 15th (or so) eastern meridian vertical, making Portugal's 5th western meridian slanted and pushing poor Portugal more to the left than the more northern Ireland.

And it is easy to underestimate the east-west dimensions of Italy. We tend to assume that it is hanging freely from below the Alps, right down as a pendulum in equilibrium should, while actually it is tilted almost 45 degrees to the right. The region commonly refered to as "south Italy" could be as easily be described as "east Italy", although that strangely never happens.

Similar thing happens to Norway. Northern Norway can be as far east as Cairo or Kiev, which only few people realise.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-16T17:56:20.694Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The region commonly refered to as "south Italy" could be as easily be described as "east Italy"

Yes, especially because the borders of pretty much any reasonable definition of it (the border of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; the western border of “Neapolitan and related varieties” in this map; the western borders of present-day Abruzzo, Molise and Campania; the western borders of present-day Molise and Campania, to name the ones I can think of at the moment) run mostly north-to-south. There's no way someone from Termoli will identify as any less of a southerner than someone from Rome, which is geographically further south.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-04-14T10:53:02.743Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was surprised when someone in Wales had trouble growing basil which I (in Delaware and Philadelphia) I thought of as the easiest plant in the world. However, Wales is a good bit north of the middle Atlantic states, and doesn't get nearly as much sunlight.

comment by Randaly · 2013-04-15T08:16:26.409Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is at least partially due to different weather- the Gulf Stream makes Europe much warmer than parts of North America at similar latitudes.

Edit: Read down, this has already been mentioned.

comment by Curiousguy · 2013-04-14T11:23:07.984Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"I assumed the equator was more or less at the upper edge of Africa/lower edge of Europe" - I've met Danes who thought along the same lines, so I'm not sure it's not a common mistake to make. Just as all of North America is north of the equator and all of South America is south of the equator; I guess it just seems more convenient that way.

On an unrelated note, nobody have explicitly mentioned the Gulf Stream or the North Atlantic Drift in the comments, so I figure I should point out the importance of this one when talking about the climate of Western Europe. I live in Jutland, more specifically quite close to the 56th parallel north - this is equivalent to the Southern parts of Hudson Bay or the Bering Sea, and we have a temperate climate.

comment by AstraSequi · 2013-04-15T09:37:11.512Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Equator passes through South America, actually. I think that there is a perception of the world's land area being divided in two by the Equator, but most of the world's land area is in the Northern Hemisphere (about 2/3, more if you don't count Antarctica).

Edit: My apologies (see next comment).

comment by Curiousguy · 2013-04-15T15:02:14.953Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"The Equator passes through South America" - I know that. Ecuador's named Ecuador for a reason. My point was that people get both of these (Africa/Europe & North/South America) wrong.

If you'd read the last link in my post above you'd not have posted the comment you just did.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2016-12-02T16:16:46.983Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is now.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-14T20:13:21.700Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Might that be because you've seen lots of maps of the Mediterranean with the Tropic of Cancer marked?

comment by knb · 2013-04-13T23:10:47.692Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Another interesting difference I think most people don't understand is how much more extreme the climate is in the United States. America tends to have much hotter summers as well as often colder winters. Along with the lower population density, this probably explains a huge amount of the reason Americans favor cars over walkable cities. Generally speaking, people are much too fast to try to explain these things in terms of cultural differences.

comment by Curiousguy · 2013-04-14T10:40:18.753Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Generally speaking, people are much too fast to try to explain [...] things in terms of cultural differences."

This is an important point I might have underlined if I'd written the post today. I think it applies to a lot of stuff besides the desired mode of transport problem.

My main point in this context would probably be that if you want to compare political- or societal structures and decisions - which many people seem to want to do even though it's very hard - you need to know a lot of stuff. Additional information makes it harder to maintain a faulty model.

Incidentally on a related note I may be wrong, but I have the impression that a lot of people living in developed societies tend to assume that environmental constraints are often things that we can just work our way around, that they're just engineering problems, and so are often not important in the big scheme of things. I.e. 'developed societies are past those problems, and being past those problems is part of what makes a society developed', rather than developing. I think that's a potentially very problematic way to think about these things, and I think that that line of thinking may make you overlook important stuff.

comment by mare-of-night · 2013-04-14T05:08:44.256Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

My understanding is the milder climates in Europe are caused by there being an ocean to the west of it - the western United States gets the same sort of temperatures. There's probably more to it than just that, but in general, west coasts in the Northern hemisphere get less temperature variation than east coasts and inland areas.

As to the walkable cities - that's actually General Motors' fault. A lot of cities had good trolley systems in the 30s, but they were privatized bought by companies with ties to the auto industry, which then replaced them with buses. People didn't like the buses, so the bus system gradually died back as people bought cars instead. I suspect culture is also part of it - Americans really like to be independent and self-sufficient, or at least feel like they are. I'm told that fits well with having a car, for a lot of people. (I'm not a very good driver, so I feel more independent when I can get where I need to go without driving, but each to their own.)

If climate also contributes, then I'd expect west coast American cities to be more walkable than east coast and inland cities. It might be most useful to make the comparison based on the 50s, 60s or 70s, once cars were widely available, but global warming was not considered a major issue. (Western cities probably also tend to favor walking because people there are more liberal, and so would want walkable and bikable cities partly for political reasons.)

comment by knb · 2013-04-14T06:23:28.877Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My understanding is the milder climates in Europe are caused by there being an ocean to the west of it - the western United States gets the same sort of temperatures.

Very little of the western US has temperatures as mild as are typical in Europe. Once you go even a few miles inland, extreme temperatures become common. For example, the Inland Empire suburbs of LA are notoriously hot in summer, and even temperatures in the 100s (Fahrenheit) are normal during summer.

As to the walkable cities - that's actually General Motors' fault.

You may want to actually read that wikipedia link, since it doesn't actually support the claim you're making. It points out that the streetcar systems that were dismantled were mostly hemorrhaging money and even in cities GM did not touch, the streetcar systems were usually dismantled anyway.

If climate also contributes, then I'd expect west coast American cities to be more walkable than east coast and inland cities.

They are more walkable ceteris parabis. The east coast is more densely populated, which puts more pressure on people to use public transit. But SF, Seattle, Portland, and Oakland are among America's most walkable cities.

Western cities probably also tend to favor walking because people there are more liberal, and so would want walkable and bikable cities partly for political reasons.

The West Coast, East Coast, and Northern Midwest are all liberal. Also keep in mind that liberals probably gravitate toward walkable cities because it fits with the lifestyle they enjoy. Conservatives are more home-and-family oriented than liberals, so they especially like having big homes and big cars to facilitate family togetherness.

comment by magfrump · 2013-04-15T05:13:49.170Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My understanding is the milder climates in Europe are caused by there being an ocean to the west of it - the western United States gets the same sort of temperatures.

Very little of the western US has temperatures as mild as are typical in Europe. Once you go even a few miles inland, extreme temperatures become common. For example, the Inland Empire suburbs of LA are notoriously hot in summer, and even temperatures in the 100s (Fahrenheit) are normal during summer.

To be fair, Europe has vastly more coastline, and directly along the west coast of the US weather is extremely mild. LA is notoriously hot but it also doesn't get cold there; the temperature range for any city along the west coast is probably 50 degrees from cold winter days to hot summer days [citation needed].

Also, Firenze, Italy has some pretty extreme weather and is only 90 km (55 miles) from the coast.

comment by Troubles · 2018-10-31T13:56:03.250Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's all well and good. Just remember that Europe the area. (The union is different, those things can change, because of people that leave or enter the union, and also American countries that could theoretically leave USA like for example Texas) so let's just compare areas, not unions.

Europe the area is larger than USA. And that's even with Alaska and Hawaii, and withouth Greenland.

Also whenever Americans talk about size, they allways show the map of the contiguous United States only, but always include the area of Alaska and Hawaii. Which is kind of unfair if Greenland and other areas are not included, which are not contiguous.

USA has roughly 200 million less people, and less water and more area in one big mass instead of spread. One language, one currency, and so it cam maybe feel like it's larger. But it's really not.

My source. Google. Simple as that. You just have to know how to read the numbers.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-20T08:40:05.597Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've recently found out that a large majority of American males are circumcised (it's much rarer in Europe). A couple things that I read in the past make much more sense to me now.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-17T23:29:50.246Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I thought that the US would be a somewhat expensive country to live in (and was going to mention it here, until I remembered that RyanCarey was explicitly talking about PPP-adjusted values), but it turns out that it's actually as cheap as Greece, (and, conversely, Israel as expensive as France).

(I guess it's that most things I've heard in the past while about prices in the US is from LWers in the Bay Area; I knew it was more expensive than the rest of the US, but I guess I underestimated that. As for Israel, I guess I was extrapolating geographically: if south-eastern Europe is cheaper than north-western Europe, then Israel, which is south-east of south-eastern Europe, must be even cheaper.)

In retrospect, it makes sense that the US is cheap, given that petrol comprises (directly or indirectly) a large fraction of first-worlders' expenditures, and it is a hell of a lot cheaper in the US than in Europe.