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). 

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.