How Public Protest Kept the Car From Taking Over Copenhagen and Amsterdam

Sarah Goodyear offers a brief history of urban development in postwar Europe, and tells of just how close the bicycle capitals of the West came to putting cars before people.
April 28, 2012, 1pm PDT | Ryan Lue
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Like all Western cities, Copenhagen and Amsterdam faced tremendous economic and cultural pressure to modernize throughout the 20th century, and to reshape themselves in the image of the automobile. How, then, did these European capitals manage to skirt the trend and emerge as 21st century beacons of hope for human-scale streets?

The key, Goodyear suggests, lies in public protest.

Much of the bicycle- and pedestrian-oriented character seen in the two cities today is not some leftover from a bygone, pre-motorized era, but a recent reclaiming of city space from the automobile. Planners "[ripped] out cycle tracks and [started] to design streets for cars as Europe modernized in the wake of World War II," writes Goodyear. "By the early 1960s, much of the cycling infrastructure that had existed in the pre-war era was gone, and the percentage of the population using bicycles for transportation fell to an all-time low of 10 percent."

It wasn't until the '70s and '80s that the citizens of Copenhagen and Amsterdam came together in protest against rising pedestrian fatalities – many of them children – and the threat of an energy crisis. Danes painted white crosses in the road to mark accident sites where cyclists had been killed. Dutch schools and parents led the charge to bring demonstrators to the streets. The wave of public disapproval steered government planning in a more human-conscious direction.

"What happened was that urban planners started thinking bicycles first and cars second," writes Colville-Andersen. "Building infrastructure to keep cyclists safe and save lives. We haven't looked back since."

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Published on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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