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). 

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.