by Peter Norton
CityLab | October 06, 2019
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 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.
Why not? One common objection is that the U.S. has no comparable history of mass opposition to automobile supremacy: While there have always been critics, after World War II they were confined to an educated elite. In the postwar U.S., there was nothing like Stop de kindermoord: popular, collective, and vocal opposition to car domination that included street demonstrations and that cut across class lines. Indeed, most Americans of that era were enthusiastic about cars. And even among those who weren’t, the preeminence of the automobile was generally accepted. There was little or no popular advocacy for pedestrian or child safety at drivers’ expense. Or so we have supposed.
Such notions come easily to mind. Americans have grown up with versions of the “car culture” thesis: This is a nation that simply likes cars, and this preference is the biggest factor in the extent of car domination. Maybe clever marketing and interest group lobbying has something to do with this (the thesis concedes), and maybe the preference is not rational; still, we prefer cars, even in settings that are poorly suited to them, and even to the point of putting up with their high financial, social, environmental, and safety costs.
The apogee of American car culture was in the 1950s and 1960s—decades when most American families had a car, but before ecological values and energy constraints complicated the picture. It was during these decades when the car looked most like the future of urban mobility, and when American influence on other nations’ mobility policies, direct and indirect, was at its height.
What these statistics suggest is that car culture, even at its height, cannot offer a complete account of American mobility. Given such disparities in car usage in the 1950s and 1960s, policies favoring drivers must have been controversial, especially among women and people of color. Their criticisms, however, are absent from the popular automotive histories and museum exhibits, and practically absent from academic articles too.
But all over America in the 1950s and 1960s, residents, particularly women, organized demonstrations against car traffic—and their street protests often closely resembled the Dutch Stop de kindermoord protests that would come in the 1970s. They demanded slower driving, usually seeking stop signs, streetlights, or crossing guards. Some demanded pedestrian over- or underpasses. Most such demonstrations were in dense residential districts of large cities, but many occurred in small cities, suburbs, and towns. Though white women predominated in many or most such demonstrations, black and Hispanic people organized some and participated in many. Men participated too, though generally as a small minority of the total.
Such demonstrations were especially common in the 1950s and 1960s. Women bearing signs picketed streets and intersections, or set up folding chairs across the breadth of streets and sat in them. Children often participated. A mainstay of the demonstrations was baby carriages, occupied or not, which rhetorically associated the demonstrations with motherhood and with the safety of children. The technique was common enough to give the demonstrations a name: Some newspapers called them “baby carriage blockades.”
Pending future publication of my more extensive account of this in the journal Urban History, one early example must suffice here. Beginning in 1914, New York City designated some streets as “play streets,” where children could roam freely. These were cordoned off to motor traffic, but trucks were permitted in to make local deliveries. On Valentine’s Day in 1949, a truck driver drove his coal truck into a play street in East Harlem to make an early afternoon delivery. He had beaten a charge of vehicular homicide 14 years earlier. According to accounts by the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, two 10-year-old girls, Carmelita Rodriguez and Maria Rodriguez (unrelated), on their lunch hour from Public School 121, strode out of a store with the candy they just purchased, confident in the safety of the play street. The truck driver struck them with his vehicle, killing both girls. Maria’s nine-year-old sister witnessed the girls’ deaths.
The next day, parents set up a second picket one block north.The demonstrators extracted a concession: The city would close the play street to delivery vehicles on weekdays during the hours when children were walking to and from school, including the lunch hour.
These persistent and vocal protests should give us cause to question the idea that the Stop de kindermoord movement in the Netherlands is too alien from the U.S. experience to serve as a useful model. Indeed, Americans were engaging in Stop de kindermoord demonstrations of their own, long before the Dutch movement of that name. (Though of course the Dutch, too, had struggled against car domination long before the 1970s too. For more on this, see the Cycling Cities series, published the Foundation for the History of Technology.)
The U.S. and the Netherlands are unmistakably distinct cases. But we need not let exaggeration of the differences, influenced by motordom’s version of America’s car history, prevent us from learning from the Dutch example. “The Netherlands’ problems were and are not unique,” Mark Wagenbuur said in 2011 in his blog Bicycle Dutch, which helped English readers rediscover the Stop de kindermoord movement. “Their solutions shouldn’t be that either.”