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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Amsterdam Axes the Auto

Air Date: Week of

Steven Beard reports on a plan to gradually cut in half the number of cars in downtown Amsterdam. Cyclists and canal boat operators number among those who support the change, but many citizens have greeted the plan with less enthusiasm. Amsterdam merchants predict that eliminating the convenience of cars will spell death to the city's economy.


CURWOOD: If some feel society is already enslaved by automobiles, they can look to even more dominance by cars in the future. If present trends continue over the next fifteen years, many industrialized countries will double the number of cars in their city centers. But some cities are trying to buck that trend with a number of measures from parking restrictions to outright bans of cars from some areas. One of the most radical projects is underway in the Netherlands' capital, Amsterdam, where the city council is aiming to cut downtown traffic in half over the next ten years. We sent reporter Stephen Beard to check it out.

(Sound of bell and traffic)

BEARD: The Muntoren, or Mintower, has graced the Amsterdam landscape for four hundred years. But today, the silvery peal of the tower bell competes with an ever-encroaching din.

(Sound of traffic)

PISTOR: Amsterdam is an historical city. It treasures its inner city, which is mainly 16th and 17th-century.

BEARD: Rob Pistor, a city official.

PISTOR: It has great value in terms of our cultural heritage, in terms of historical identity. But the increase of car traffic over the past 20, 30 years has suffocated the city.

(Sound of boat horns, canal traffic)

BEARD: This is the kind of traffic Amsterdam was built for - barges that ply the cobweb of canals. The waterways dictate the layout of the city. Unlike most European capitals, there are no broad avenues and expansive squares - only narrow streets that hug the canals, a labyrinth of humpbacked bridges. Picturesque it may be, but it's especially prey to the evils of the motor car - congestion, fumes and noise.

PISTOR: In a narrow city, small city with narrow streets like this, the noise produced by car traffic is enormous and the conflict between traffic and having a nice place to live in is, the conflict is enormous at the moment.

BEARD: Last year, for the first time in its history, Amsterdam held a referendum. The citizens were asked to adopt a radical plan - to cut car traffic in the city center by half over the next decade. Most of the voters said yes.

MAN 1: I think it's a very good idea. People can hardly walk when they're shopping or just for fun going there. You have to jump sideways to avoid the cars.
MAN 2: I think it's very good idea, there are getting more and more cars in town. It's dangerous, it's dirty, it's ugly. I like space, even in a city you must have space, and cars don't make space, they take space.
WOMAN 1: For me it's not so good because I have my shop here. I need people to come in front of my shop to get the materials so they can't park their cars here, it's bad for business! (Laughs)

BEARD: The plan did not receive a ringing endorsement. 53% said yes, but 46% said no. And only a quarter of the residents bothered to vote. Faced with this mixture of apathy and opposition, the City Council decided to proceed with caution, and squeeze the motor car slowly out of the center, as Rob Pistor explains.

PISTOR: Whenever a road is being or a street is being resurfaced in the city, now the policy is already to take away space from the car traffic and give it to pedestrians and cyclists but also to areas that people can sit and watch and spend their leisure time. So already there is a program going on of reducing car space slowly, step by step, because if you do it like a big bang then you get an enormous backlash, you get enormous opposition from one group or another and the city cannot afford that.

(Sound of ambulance siren)

BEARD: Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and taxis will, under the plan, have unlimited access to the city center. Small business vans will be permitted to load and unload for short periods. But eventually, only the handicapped and the elderly residents will be able to park inside the three square miles within the inner ring of canals. The council says it will expand public transport. There will be more tram lines for the street cars, and a new metro. There will be more parking lots on the outskirts of the city. The council believes that in the new unpolluted environment, the economy will boom. But many shopkeepers in central Amsterdam, like Andre Wilment, are forecasting disaster.

WILMENT: It will damage the economic center. Absolutely. Because there are, in Holland we have many, many shopping centers out of the city with good parking places. So if it will be more difficult to enter the center of Amsterdam, they are looking forward to the other centers.
BEARD: People won't come into Amsterdam?
WLIMENT: No. Maybe only for the museum and maybe for an evening out, and then you get a dead city.

BEARD: The Chamber of Commerce, representing most of the shops, restaurants, and small offices in the center, is equally apocalyptic. Chairman Walter van der Kolk is predicting huge job losses.

VAN DER KOLK: If I tell you that there are now 80,000 jobs in the city center and that amount will diminish to 60,000 and so 20,000 jobs will go away as a result of the reducing the car traffic.

(Sound of bicycle traffic)

BEARD: The cyclists, on the other hand, are jubilant. And there are more than a quarter of a million of them regularly using their bikes in Amsterdam. Jos Lousman, who runs a cycle hire shop, took me on a tandem ride around the city.

LOUSMAN: I am very much in favor of reducing cars in town. I like it of course, more quiet and more clean in town. And the wider and the bigger the bicycle paths and lanes are, the better I can ride my bicycle.
BEARD: And is it a good town for bicycling?
LOUSMAN: I think it's the perfect town to ride a bicycle. You know how many bicycles we have in Holland? It's more than there are people, so, bicycles are an important way of transport, people going to their work, people going everywhere. We're going to the right.

(Sound of tour guide, in Dutch, then: "We're now entering the old city center of Amsterdam and we're coming on to the Prince's Canal which is one of the three main canals . . ." fade under)

BEARD: Canal boat operators also welcome the attack on car traffic. Peter Sul runs the Museum Boat, an all-day, hop-on-and-off service. It's aimed primarily at tourists, but he says the locals are increasingly resorting to the waterways to get around town.

SUL: The Museum Boat is really the future of Amsterdam. It's not for only sightseeing function, but the public transport value will increase because more and more it's getting difficult to enter into the city by car. We think that even Amsterdam people will get aware of the fact that the canals are there for the transport, and will use the boats that can bring them to wherever they work, to the office or the shops or wherever they'd like to go to.

(Street organ music, fade under)

BEARD: Most other European capitals are also squeezing out the car, forever increasing their pedestrian precincts. But no plan is more radical than Amsterdam's. The city presents an important test case. If excluding the car doesn't work here, where hundreds of thousands already use bicycles and the canals are yet another alternative, it won't work anywhere. City planners around the world will be watching and listening to see whether the Dutch capital's celebrated street music will eventually drown out the cacophony of car horns. For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard in Amsterdam.



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