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The Hidden History of American Anti-Car Protests

Among advocates of safe, sustainable, and bike-friendly mobility, the Netherlands has long been the success story to point to. But in English-speaking countries—especially the car-dominated United States—how useful is the Netherlands as an example to emulate? The question has been divisive.

Many have said that the Dutch example won’t suit the U.S.; its government presumably always favored cycling, and the American love affair with the automobile means the car will always come first here.

In recent years, however, it’s become much clearer that an enlightened government did not hand the Dutch their bike-friendly cities, which were once far more car-friendly. Residents had to fight for them.

But the second objection persists: U.S. car culture meant that Americans never organized anti-car protests like those the Dutch staged. Twentieth-century Americans, eagerly or grudgingly, apparently accepted car domination. A closer look, however, reveals long-neglected anti-car protests in numerous American cities and suburbs—even in the supposedly car-loving postwar decades. The protesters, the vast majority of them women, demanded safer streets for pedestrians and children.

Let’s start with the Dutch protests. In 2011, articles in English began circulating about the mass movement against cars in the Netherlands of the 1970s. In that era, Dutch cities were much more car-friendly than they are today—and much more dangerous, especially for cyclists, pedestrians, and above all children. As in many other countries, officialdom in the Netherlands had long favored motor vehicles at the expense of other street users. Change required a mass movement, including protests and demonstrations. Dutch people forced their reluctant government to become more bike friendly. Transportation policy was not enlightened, and did not change of its own accord.

The movement took its name from an editorial written in 1972 by a distraught journalist whose six-year-old daughter was killed while riding her bicycle to school. He called for a new activist group to be called Stop de kindermoord (Stop the Child Killing). The name became a slogan and a label for a diverse and growing movement.

In the Netherlands this movement was never forgotten, but it was little known elsewhere. So it was easy to suppose that Dutch policymakers must have always favored bikes and pedestrians. But the proliferation of English-language articles about the Stop de kindermoord movement finally set aside this major objection to the Dutch example. To the objection “We’re not Amsterdam,” there was a new rejoinder: “Amsterdam wasn’t always Amsterdam.” Achieving safer, more sustainable, and less car-dependent mobility does not require an enlightened government. The Dutch people proved it.

In the U.S., however, the Dutch example remains controversial. In April, drawing from recent experience as a guest faculty member at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, I used it briefly in a talk at the Safe Systems Summit in Durham, North Carolina. Afterwards, an audience member explained to me that the Netherlands example is (still) not useful for American cities.

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