The Hidden History of American Anti-Car Protests

by Peter Norton

CityLab | October 06, 2019

A photo of residents blocking a Philadelphia intersection on a July weekend in 1953.
Residents block a Philadelphia intersection on a July weekend in 1953. Stop signs were installed the following Monday. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 1956/Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia

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.

Stop de kindermoord in the Netherlands: Demonstrators block an intersection in Amsterdam, October 31, 1972. (ANP [Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau] Historisch Archief)

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 car culture thesis—also known as “America’s love affair with the automobile”—has endured in part because it’s half true. Most Americans like cars and want to own one. But the preference is not absolute: Where the alternatives are good, they’re often popular. This love affair has endured because motordom developed it, nurtured it, and continues to promote it.

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.

But even in 1970, many Americans owned no automobile, or had no reliable access to one. Many could not drive, for a variety of reasons. Nearly one of five U.S. households had no car. According to research published by the Federal Highway Administration early in that decade, among the 10.7 million households in which the family income was less than $3,000 a year, 63 percent had no car. Women drove much less than men: About 56 percent of all licensed drivers were men, and according to drivers’ own estimates 73 percent of all miles driven were driven by men. People of color were much less likely to drive than whites. Whites made 52 percent of their trips as car drivers, nonwhites 37 percent. Among school children in 1970, 42 percent walked or bicycled, compared to 38 percent who rode a school bus. Only 16 percent were driven to school.

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.

Many demonstrations—particularly the biggest ones—were triggered by the injury or death of a child. Against any tendency to blame the parents for permitting their children to have a life of their own beyond home and school, demonstrators consistently demanded streets that local children could use safely. And while the demonstrations were nearly always nonviolent, they were vocal and insistent, and sometimes confrontational. They included some degree of traffic obstruction, sometimes even full blockades that barred all motor vehicles.

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.”

In January 1959, demonstrators blocked the intersection of South Road and 160th Street in Queens, New York. Rush-hour pickets continued intermittently for weeks, until authorities promised (and eventually installed) a traffic light. (New York Amsterdam News, Jan. 31, 1959.)

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, local residents formed a “parent and baby-carriage blockade,” stopping and turning back all delivery vehicles. According to a New York Daily News reporter, 100 women participated; photos of the protest show an ethnically diverse population. Mary di Stefano, president of the Parents’ Association of P.S. 121, made their position clear: “They’ll have to kill us to get through here, ” she told the Daily News.

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.

After a coal truck killed two 10-year-old girls on a play street in East Harlem in February 1949, mothers blocked the street at two points. (New York Daily News, Feb. 16, 1949)
This 1949 demonstration was not the first of its kind, but it appears to have been the first to be dubbed a “baby carriage blockade.” It bears much in common with typical traffic safety demonstrations of its era: Most of the participants were women, in the company of their children. Their demand was primarily a plea for child safety, but without depriving children of their use of the streets. The demonstrators did not object to the preeminence of cars in their city, and they did not demand playgrounds so that children would not need streets; they demanded streets safe for children.

Demonstrations like this one were common in the 1950s and ’60s, but gradually declined in frequency and scale thereafter. The decline coincided with suburbanization, a falling birthrate, and smaller families, but it also signaled the ascendency of the now-preferred path to child traffic safety: the two-car family, parental chauffeuring of children, a surrender to car dependency regardless of the costs or family income, and the abandonment of children’s independent mobility. Where streets were unsafe for children, the problem became the mother’s responsibility, and an injury or a death was the mother’s fault.

When they were common, American anti-car movements remained isolated local affairs, with no national cohesion. Press coverage was local only. But the era of the baby carriage blockades is a reminder that Americans of all classes resisted cars’ predominance, and they did so in decades we now recall as the height of car culture.

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 Dutchwhich helped English readers rediscover the Stop de kindermoord movement. “Their solutions shouldn’t be that either.”

This article is published as part of the Vision Zero Cities Conference, October 10-11 in New York City. Register for the conference.

About the Author

Peter Norton

Peter Norton

Peter Norton is a historian of cities, streets, and people.  He is an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.



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