One of the highlights of travelling Europe in my twenties was a bike ride across The Netherlands, the country with the world’s largest number of cyclists and best bike paths. I assumed it had always been king of cycling. Not so, I discovered recently. Had it not been for mass protests, The Netherlands would have been ruled by cars.
Before World War II, journeys were mainly by bike, but in the 1950s and 1960s car ownership rocketed, roads became increasingly congested, new roads were hastily constructed and some of the old cycling infrastructure removed. Amsterdam saw a huge decline in cycling, from 80 percent of the population to 20 percent. But this ‘progress’ came at a terrible cost. In 1971 alone, 3,300 people, including more than 400 children, were killed in traffic accidents.
This slaughter of children made people so angry they began protesting on the streets, and a grassroots campaign, Stop de Kindermoord (‘Stop the Child Murder’) took off. Stop de Kindermoord grew rapidly and its members held mass demonstrations, occupied accident blackspots, hosted dinner parties in the middle of roads and painted their own bike lanes.
The Dutch faith in the reliability of the car was also shaken by the Middle East oil crisis of 1973, when oil-producing countries stopped exports to Western Europe.
These twin pressures persuaded the government to invest in improved cycling infrastructure including dedicated, networked cycle lanes. Councils instigated car-free Sundays and constructed curvy roads with multiple bumps. Cycling rates increased spectacularly and by 2010 child deaths from traffic accidents had dropped from 400 to 14.
The Dutch are not the only citizens to have used protests and civil disobedience for the betterment of their country. It’s been crucial to achieving many advances we take for granted, including the abolition of slavery, the vote for women and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Now growing numbers of Australians are engaging in direct action to stop the disastrous Adani Carmichael mine. Stop de Kindermoord was about creating safer roads, Stop Adani is about creating a safer climate. It takes courage to take part in protests, so please, if you see our members on the streets or outside MPs offices, give them your blessing. Better still, join in. They are following history’s lead and acting in the best interests of us all.