Why the Streets of Copenhagen and Amsterdam Look So Different From Ours

By seizing a historical moment, ordinary Danish and Dutch citizens were able to change the course of development in their urban centers.

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Flickr/ebrkut

Yesterday, I wrote about how the streets of cities in the United States were transformed over time into the exclusive province of cars. Fundamental changes in infrastructure and in law have solidified an attitude of resignation to the idea that people on foot or on bikes will inevitably be struck by vehicles. That “accidents happen.”

It didn’t have to go that way.

There are cities in the world that could have become just as hazardous to pedestrians, but whose citizens demanded something different. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the best examples. These cities – today widely viewed as paragons in the area of "livable streets" – were headed down the same auto-centric route as the U.S. in the period following World War II.

And then they turned around.

To help me figure out why and how the Danes and the Dutch changed course, I turned to a couple of cycling advocates and bloggers from those countries.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, who writes at Copenhagenize, traces the roots of Denmark’s cycling success back to the 19th century. “The bicycle was regarded, more than most places in the world — as ‘good for society,’” he writes in an email. “After the bicycle boom in the late 1800s, many cycling clubs merged and then many of them merged again, morphing into cyclist 'unions', with political goals. What happened in most countries in the early 20th century was that sports cycling organizations were formed to further cycling as sport…. Not so in Denmark and the Netherlands. The cyclist unions  -- meaning organizations for promoting cycling as transport, etc. -- stayed strong and separate and they gained political influence.”

Still, that didn’t stop planners from ripping out cycle tracks and starting to design streets for cars as Europe modernized in the wake of World War II. 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.

Then history intervened. “The energy crisis in 1973 hit Denmark hard. Very hard,” writes Colville-Andersen. “Car-free Sundays were introduced in order to save fuel. Every second streetlight was turned off in order to save energy. A groundswell of public discontent started to form. People wanted to be able to ride their bicycles again -- safely. Protests took place…. The energy crisis faded, but then returned in 1979. More protests. One form of protest/awareness was painting white crosses on the asphalt where cyclists had been killed. This time, things happened. We started to rebuild our cycle track network in the early 1980s. Fatalities and injuries started falling. The network was expanded.

“What happened was that urban planners started thinking bicycles first and cars second. Building infrastructure to keep cyclists safe and save lives. We haven't looked back since.”

During the same period, as Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl has chronicled, large parts of Copenhagen were being taken back for pedestrians. From his book Cities for People:

After many years of pruning back pedestrian areas, Copenhagen was one of the first cities in Europe to grasp the nettle in the early 1960s and begin reducing car traffic and parking in the city center in order to create once again better space for city life.

Copenhagen’s traditional main street, Stroget, was converted to a pedestrian promenade already in 1962. Skepticism abounded. Would a project like this really succeed so far north?

After only a short period it was clear that the project was enjoying greater success faster thank anyone had anticipated. The number of pedestrians rose 35% in the first year alone….Since then, more streets have been converted for pedestrian traffic and city life, and one by one the parking places in the city center have been turned into squares that accommodate public life.

In the Netherlands, a similar trajectory unfolded. “Cycling in the Netherlands declined sharply in the post-war period,” Marc van Woudenberg of Amsterdamize writes in an email. “In the 1950s and 1960s, existing cycle paths were in many cases removed in order to make space for more cars. From 1950 to 1975, the bicycle was almost entirely excluded from the government's vision…. The number of deaths rose, especially amongst children on their way to and from school. In 1972, a total of 3,264 people were killed on Dutch roads, and in 1973, 450 road deaths were of children.”

Those child deaths created public outrage and sparked mass demonstrations.

“That year a group of Dutch parents created the pressure group 'Stop de Kindermoord' ('Stop the Child Murder'),” writes van Woudenberg. “Through street demonstrations and relentless petitioning (in close coordination with schools), this movement gained traction in many cities. It successfully influenced the Dutch government to re-emphasize the construction of safer streets and segregated cycle paths, and to make more money available to pay for them. It was a pivotal moment in time, when the Netherlands and the rest of the world were dealing with an oil crisis, a currency crisis, and an environmental crisis. It galvanized the call for more livable and safer cities. This call was answered by a transportation policy change that halted car domination and an overall vision to integrate that in other aspects of governance.”  

Mark Wagenbuur, who blogs at BicycleDutch, has put together a powerful video that tells the story, “How the Dutch Got Their Cycle Paths.”

It makes you wonder why no one in the United States even seems to be aware that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 3 to 14.

But it's not just about safety, it's about quality of life. Wagenbuur also writes about how the Netherlands started tearing down parts of its old cities in an urban renewal effort similar to that seen in the United States, but there was a strong reaction against the results:

[W]hen the large scale demolitions were taking place several things became clear. The new streets were good for the flow of traffic but not good for people. It isn’t pleasant to be in a street with tall buildings and heavy fast moving motorized traffic. …

In the 1970s there were gaping holes all over the city of half finished street widening projects. Ironically the open places were all used as temporary parking places. But times were changing. People began to see the value of the historic buildings. The human scale of the old streets was appreciated much more when the wide windy streets of modernism became ever more present. They were hard to cross for pedestrians as well. And it became very clear that the scale of motorization was so large that the old city centers couldn’t be adapted to it. If you demolish the whole city for the flow of traffic what destination for that traffic would be left?

It seems that by seizing a historical moment – the energy crisis – in an era when the power of public protest was arguably at its peak, ordinary Danish and Dutch citizens were able to change the course of development in their urban centers. Livable streets advocates in the U.S. look longingly at Copenhagen and Amsterdam today. There, the path not traveled by America is clearly visible.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.