Mobility Car-Free Lessons From Amsterdam’s Agenda - Taking "Car-Lite" to the Next Level

Lessons From Amsterdam’s Agenda – Taking “Car-Lite” to the Next Level

Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

In 2018, the city government of Amsterdam formulated the “Amsterdam Agenda Autoluw” which aims to push the city towards a “car-lite” vision, increasing city space for pedestrians and cyclists.  But how have they taken what is already a non-car-dependent city to the next level, and how has the standard been set for other cities worldwide?

Amsterdam’s ‘Autoluw’ Attitude

If you’ve heard one thing about Amsterdam – it’s probably that it is the cycling capital of the world. Around 38% of all trips are made by bike, which is the majority of citizen’s preferred mode of  transport, and cars know their place as “guests on the street“. 

This may leave you wondering, “what business does a city that is already bike fanatic have in becoming even less accommodating for cars?” – but the answer lies in one thing, and that is the boom in the city’s population density and levels of tourism in recent years.

Amsterdam is a small, condensed city and in the last three years, it’s population size has skyrocketed to over 1 million inhabitants, while the number of tourists has also increased dramatically from 19 million in 2018 to 21 million in 2020.

This rising number of people travelling through the old and narrow historical canal streets has heightened the pressure for city space to be used optimally and in a way that is most efficient.

That’s where the “Agenda Autoluw” comes in. The Dutch word “autoluw” directly translates to “nearly car free” or “car-lite”, and the plan itself provides an in-depth 27-step strategy for reducing cars through a variety of traffic restriction measures, car-sharing objectives and changes to infrastructure.

The plan centres around four main pillars. The first is that citizens should “choose clean, healthy and shared transport”, the second is “creating and utilising space” – notably involving the removal of between 7000 and 10,000 parking spots. The third acknowledges the conditionality of these measures, aiming for a middle ground between the theoretical proposals and specific measures in the city, while the fourth aims for state-of-the-art techniques for effective law enforcements.

The ultimate goal is not to become car-free, but instead it is about helping people to realise that a “a lot of the time, the car is indispensable”, says Alderman Sharon Dijksma. It aims to ensure that Amsterdam’s success in reducing cars is sustained and preserved in the long-term.

Putting the Plan Into Action

The specific steps in the 27-point plan can be found in detail here, and the strategy sure looks like on paper. But what lessons have been learnt since the Agenda has been implemented? How has Amsterdam been able to successfully put this plan in place, and how can other cities learn from this?

In 2019, the office for the Agenda Autoluw organised an international expert meetup on car traffic reduction and, having looked at the examples of the traffic-calming measures that are being used to create liveable cities and how they came about, the office then used this to formulate a key series of lessons learnt.

We spoke to the process manager for the Agenda, Evelien van der Molen, who gave us an insight into key takeaways describing how a car-lite city can be created:

Lesson 1: Stakeholder Management

Measures for traffic calming affect residents, commuters, visitors and businesses. In achieving car-lite cities it is therefore essential to meet the expectations and serve the interests of stakeholders and interested parties. This entails an analysis of the various actors involved, their interests and viewpoints.

For example, both Hamburg and Munich have a balancing act to play between the diverging interests of the very present car industry and those of residents. Also, in Oslo, key stakeholders were people, businesses and the disabled.

It is key to establish a balance between these interests and manage them efficiently.

In some locations across the city, the pressure on public space is extremely high. The solutions to this are always tailor made, and therefore the Agenda sets out that the local government must always help city districts with knowledge and expertise so they can come up with solutions and draw in local stakeholders in various areas where particular logistics problems arise.

Lesson 2: Choose Your Words Carefully

The way in which you communicate and the words you choose have a significant impact on people’s perceptions. Focus on what the change will deliver. More space for cyclists, pedestrians and a cleaner city. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to avoid any “war on words”, like what developed in Oslo when the city announced they were “banning” cars.

Therefore, in the Agenda the wording is clear that “car-lite” is not simply a matter of keeping all car traffic out of the city. Instead, it is about carefully and gradually reducing cars – while ensuring at every step that accessibility to the city is guaranteed.

Lesson 3: The Alternative Must Be Available and Visible

Increasing numbers of people are leaving their cars at home or deliberately opting ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­to not buy one. The alternative must therefore already be in place, and preferably one that is immediately available.

For example, in attempt to decrease the number of cars on the road the Agenda aimed to create a traffic network whereby traffic would be regulated through intelligent access supplemented by behavioural measures for more efficient use of the network.

They planned to simultaneously promote the creation of more space for car-sharing hubs, new, smarter and better flowing public transport networks, shared bicycles and park and contiguous pedestrian areas to ensure that cleaner transport is both accessible and attractive. 

Oslo received a lot of backlash when it removed car parking spaces at first, as a result of a failure to install pilot systems to demonstrate the benefit of the measure.

Image credit: Unsplash / Loes Klinker

Lesson 4: Apply an Integrated Approach

The transition towards a car-lite city also demands a lot of city organization. Measures taken encroach on multiple themes and affect different target groups. It is essential to involve all parts of the city in the right way and at the right time. 

In an online webinar, Alderman Sharon Dijksma also commented that “collaboration between the different parts of government, whether it is regional, local or national, is key. If we do not collaborate in order to make a plan for car-free areas, then we will end up nowhere.”

An example of where this has been an issue is in Munich, where “normal” cars were using the parking spaces intended for shared cars because enforcement was not organized on time. 

An integrated approach ensures you take account of all stakeholders, preventing them becoming involved in the process at too late a stage.

In order ensure this, Amsterdam has aimed to include as much international expertise as possible in the Agenda. Not only including the voices of policy experts, but the voices of the public too. Amsterdam has co-operated closely with policymakers in the areas of car traffic reduction and inner-city liveability and has collected experiences and practices from other Dutch cities as well as worldwide.

They did this by asking a group of trainees of the City of Amsterdam program to collect insights from other European cities and interview experts and interest groups while doing so. The most important lessons coming from this research were then used as key inspiration for the Agenda.

Lesson 5: The Layout of Public Spaces Determines Behaviour

Traffic calming measures often require physical intervention in public spaces. But a single intervention is not sufficient to ensure that people make optimum use of the new feature. 

This calls for a behavioural change, which doesn’t happen automatically. We have learned from Oslo that seating introduced in a dreary street that has not yet been redesigned will hardly be used.

The biggest factor when deciding which streets to make car-free ‘is not cost, but in fact safety. If we close a street to cars, then we must investigate where the cars otherwise go. Would this be a safer alternative than the use of the particular street?’, says Dijksma.

“We don’t just use our own data to see the behaviour of owners which cannot drive there anymore, but also discuss with police to see if closing this particular area to cars is really a responsible decision.”

All-in-All…

The 27-step plan provides a range of measures that can be used when trying to convert a city towards becoming “car-lite”. But perhaps it is not what measures we are trying to implement, but rather how we go about implementing them that is important. Amsterdam continues to be one of the leading cities in terms of the car-lite vision, and these lessons learnt can help to influence other cities in their journey towards a similar future.

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