Street by Street, Amsterdam Is Cutting Cars Out of the Picture

Famously, private cars in Amsterdam take a back seat to bicycles: Roughly two-thirds of urban journeys in the Dutch capital take place on two wheels, and only 19 percent of citizens use cars every day.

Still, there are a lot of cars left in the city, and they’re causing tension for everyone else. Mobs of cyclists jostle for cycling space and limited bike parking spots, which in turn often antagonizes pedestrians, who find their spaces invaded by bikes.

In an effort to ease this clash of mobility modes and achieve its ultimate goal of becoming a “car-free city,” Amsterdam Alderperson (as members of the municipal legislature are called) Sharon Dijksma* announced a host of new measures last week designed to make it harder for motorists to use at least ten central streets as through-routes, using one-way systems, roadway narrowing, and barriers. To further encourage drivers to give up their keys, the city also announced plans to open the Amsterdam Metro all night on weekends starting in 2021, and to make all weekend transit free for children under 12 in the same year. Meanwhile, City Hall is already mulling a more sweeping plan—not just to restrict through-traffic, but to ban it altogether.

The city boasts an ambitious slate of car-mitigation goals, including a ban on all gas- and diesel- powered cars in the city by 2030. Part of that push might involve encouraging drivers to switch to electric vehicles, but aspirations to a zero-emissions future—and solutions to the logistical complications of creating a charging network for an expanded electric fleet—are going to be far easier to realize with significantly fewer private vehicles on the road.

The tools Amsterdam is using to build its car-free future don’t require huge amounts of disruption or cost. Key among these is what the Dutch call a “cut” (knip in Dutch). This involves simply putting up barriers that close off a short strip of a long street; most of the street can still be accessed for deliveries, pick-ups, and drop-offs, but it’s no longer good as a route across town.

Amsterdam has been honing this tool for some time. Currently, for example, you can drive to and from the city’s Central Station, but you can no longer drive directly past it, freeing up the forecourt for a sweeping square populated only by pedestrians and trams. More central streets will now be getting their own knips, while others will be made one-way only or have their car lanes narrowed. The city reckons that, once cut, a street’s traffic drops by 70 percent.

If this sounds a little purgatorial for drivers, well, that’s kind of the point. Hustling cars out of the city center doesn’t just help the city towards its goal of being emissions-free by 2030, it serves to rebalance a road system that that remains disproportionately geared towards drivers’ needs (at least by Dutch standards). In the future, driving through rather than to central Amsterdam could be banned. The idea currently being mulled is that controls on cars could be enforced by cameras around the city center’s perimeter, a technique already used seamlessly enough to manage London’s central Congestion Charge Zone.  

Another measure under discussion is allowing taxis into central Amsterdam only if they have been summoned or have a ride to drop-off, a way of making sure that downtown streets don’t get clogged with cruising, passenger-less vehicles.

Again, this is tough talk, and it is significant that these firmer measures are being discussed by the municipality rather than openly avowed as confirmed future policy. They nonetheless reflect what’s been Amsterdam‘s direction of travel for some time. The city has been systematically stripping away parking spots for several years, and already severed the main east-west car routes across the city center in 2018. It’s not hard to see how the idea of driving downtown could very soon be a thing of the past. Month by month and year by year, the gaps through which cars can penetrate in Amsterdam are being sealed up.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Sharon Dijksma as the city’s mayor.

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