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, 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.”


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

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