The Netherlands cleared the cars from its cities. Why can’t London or New York?

A die-in in London, 2013. Image: Getty.

The past few months have seen an uptick in cycling deaths in cities around the world. In New York City alone, 18 people had been killed in cycling collisions by the middle of 2019, nearly doubling the city’s total for the whole of 2018.

It’s a sad irony that the increase in fatalities comes as countless municipalities have committed to Vision Zero – a plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries.

While the ethos behind Vision Zero is commendable, the vision itself is only as good as the actions taken to support it. The commitment from elected officials needs to be more than just lip service or nothing will get better – in fact, it will just get worse. The first step is prioritising safer space on our streets.

An ever-growing number of cities are building fully separated cycle tracks to help reduce conflict between road users. London’s cycleways are an excellent example of Transport for London’s commitment to getting more people on bicycles while also keeping them safe on that city’s notoriously hostile streets. New York City itself has spent nearly a decade taming its streets with protected cycle lanes. To some extent, these efforts are working, as more people who formerly wouldn’t cycle are giving it a try.

So with all this investment in safer streets, why the increase in cycling deaths? Simply put, the investment is not commensurate with the latent demand, creating gaps that are hot spots for conflict. Intersections remain some of the most dangerous places for cyclists, who are left exposed to conditions that are designed and optimised for car travel. That, often coupled with incomplete cycling networks, means that drivers and cyclists are left to their own devices to navigate the streets. When pitted against each other, there is one obvious “winner”.

Tensions have been rising between road users for decades now, since the first Critical Mass was held in San Francisco in 1992. Transport mode tribalism has contributed to intense confrontations between those on bikes and in cars. For many cycling advocates, the fight for the democratisation of our streets can start to feel hopeless.

But there are signs of history repeating itself, perhaps for the better. Following one of the recent cycling fatalities in New York City, activists took to the streets to demand the City increase its efforts to protect cyclists. They hosted a die-in in Washington Square Park – a macabre, albeit poignant, statement that road fatalities of cyclists is not an acceptable status quo.


The die-in echoed historic demonstrations that took place in Amsterdam in the mid-1970s, as part of the Stop de Kindermoord (stop the child murder) movement. The Dutch uprising followed a dramatic increase in automobile traffic, and a corresponding rash of traffic fatalities that took the lives of 400 children in 1971. Now, just as in the Netherlands nearly 40 years ago, it is the people of New York City who are demanding change.

It’s not just New Yorkers. In San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, Milwaukee, Glasgow, and Wellington, NZ, human beings are literally putting themselves in harm’s way to create a physical divide between cars and those traveling on bicycles. The “People Protected Bike Lane,” a form of tactical urbanism, is becoming an increasing common form of protest. In these cities, adults stand alongside children to demand better conditions, just as Dutch families did in the ‘70’s. It’s a clear statement that the right to space is an equity issue with no age limit.

The fact is that we’ve been here before. Perhaps on different shores, but the conditions are the same. Growing congestion coupled with increased demand on limited space make our streets hostile places. If those who have been elected to serve are truly committed to a Vision Zero future, it needs to be more than just talk. Proactive policies that create safer conditions through a combination of traffic calming, complete networks and separated facilities will go a long way to encouraging cycling without increasing fatalities at the same time.

The question is, can we learn from more recent mistakes and see the lessons that are laid out for us from history? If New York’s die-in shows us anything, it’s that we can take inspiration from the activist spirit of the past to demand better for our cities. Just as the Dutch stood up and ultimately created some of the most cycling friendly streets on the planet, so to can New Yorkers, Londoners and others around the world. The people are asking, now it’s up to our representatives to answer the call.

Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are the co-authors of Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (Island Press, 2018). 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.