1973 – Dutch campaign starts global shift towards bike-friendly cities

In the 1960s, Dutch cities were being cleared to make way for roads and cars, which were seen as the transport of the future. But the intolerable toll of child traffic deaths in the city – and fierce activism – turned Amsterdam into the cycling haven it is today, setting a model for other cities to replicate.

When the Dutch economy boomed in the post-war era and more people could afford cars, many of Amsterdam’s neighbourhoods were cleared to make way for motorized traffic. The use of bikes fell by 6% every year, and the growing motor traffic took its toll. The number of traffic casualties peaked at 3,300 deaths in 1971, including more than 400 children.

This staggering loss led to protests by different action groups. Stop de Kindermoord (“stop child murder”) grew rapidly, holding bicycle demonstrations, occupying accident blackspots and organizing special days during which streets were closed to allow children to play safely.

Two years later, activists founded the First Only Real Dutch Cyclists’ Union to demand more space for bicycles in the public realm – organising bike rides along dangerous stretches of road, and listing the problems encountered by cyclists. Their cause was helped by the 1973 oil crisis which quadrupled the price of oil, and led the government to urge citizens to save energy, including through ‘car-free Sundays’ which continue up to today.

Today the Netherlands boasts 32,000 miles of cycle paths, and more than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle. All major Dutch cities have designated ‘bicycle civil servants’, tasked with maintaining and improving the network. And the popularity of the bike is still growing, thanks partly to the development of electric bicycles.

Worldwide, cycling is booming with ever more cities investing in bike paths and bike share schemes, and even the US – home of the automobile – hosting a 62% increase in bike commuters between 2000 and 2013.

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Amsterdam is now home to an estimated 881,000 bicycles. Photo by Timothy Clary.