In recent years we could see trials with pedestrian zones in cities around the world. The New York “Plaza’s” are very successful and spreading. Other cities are lagging behind, or they are just waking up, like London, where “Problems with congestion, pollution and safety need to be resolved”. Pedestrianization would help there. In the Netherlands almost all cities already have a pedestrianized city centre. That isn’t a recent development: they have had these areas for decades. How did that happen?
Today 49 years ago, the 6th of November 1965, Utrecht started a large-scale experiment with car free shopping streets. The national press followed it with great interest and even the news service for the cinemas reported about it. That is the reason why I can now show you very interesting moving images. The experiment was a big success and this eventually led to all those car free city centres.
Video about the trial with car free shopping streets in Utrecht in 1965
Utrecht was not the first city in the Netherlands to have car free streets. That honour goes to Rotterdam. Its city centre had been levelled by Nazi bombs in World War II, but it was soon rebuilt and already in 1949 construction started for the world’s first car free shopping street, Lijnbaan, that was finished and opened in 1953. More than a decade before Copenhagen’s first car free street became permanently car free in 1964. Utrecht already had some earlier car free streets too. Plans to pedestrianize the Lijnmarkt* date from 1962. The Oudegracht was apparently also partly car free. What was so special about the 1965 experiment, however, was that it no longer concerned just one or two streets, but an entire zone in the city centre, comprising the most important shopping streets.
From Saturday 6th November 1965, at exactly 1 pm, the streets were closed off by the police. In those days people still had to work and children even went to school on Saturday mornings, so that it was only during the afternoons made perfect sense. All cars had to leave the area completely. Parking was also prohibited. People were allowed to take their bicycles into the area, but only if they dismounted. You can see a lot of people walking with their bicycles in the video.
The experiment was planned to take half a year, but in reality the trial would last a full year. The end conclusion was that the experiment was a huge success. And the trial would soon be expanded to Wednesday afternoons. The afternoon children did not have to go to school.
The initiative for the car free streets had come from an unexpected party. A contemporary Utrecht newspaper reported: “This measure is a result of an initiative of the Utrecht police. The arrangement took shape in close consultation with the Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Small-Businesses and the Utrecht authorities.” That the police came up with this idea may be a result of the fact, that the streets were so narrow and full of dangerous motor traffic, that the safety for especially the most vulnerable traffic users was at stake.
Most of the newspaper articles reporting about the upcoming experiment were in an enthusiastic tone. Yet there were also some critical remarks.
This criticism was related to people parking their cars. “We see this measure as only half a solution. Isn’t it a fact that people use the car to go shopping more and more, despite the increasing parking problems? It will be a hard task to get the public to change this habit, certainly when we consider the ever-increasing number of cars. It would be better when authorities would take up the building of parking facilities at the edge of the city centres. If one thing has become clear by now, it is that traffic cannot be constrained by half measures.” (Nieuwsblad van het Noorden; 6-11-1965)
But this “ever-increasing number of cars” was the reason for this trial in the first place. First and foremost, it was the object of the police to give more space to pedestrians and to make shopping a much more pleasant (and safe) experience. And the police would change their ways too, as one newspaper reported: “The police will completely adapt to the new situation: they will do their surveillance on foot!” (Telegraaf 3-11-1965). The police did a good job, in the year of the trial only two minor incidents were reported of cars illegally entering the area.
From my Dutch point of view it is amazing that people in other countries still believe pedestrianized streets would be a bad idea. That it would take life out of a street and that it would turn them into dead zones… as if motor traffic represents life… quite the opposite I would argue! And the people in Utrecht would have disagreed as well. Within a couple of years all the central Utrecht streets were made car free permanently and they have been like that for over 40 years. Already in 1975, the city advertised with the fact that shopping was really a great experience in Utrecht, without the noise and danger of cars.
The reason for the success was mainly this finding at the end of the trial. “We can speak of a business success for many branches, and also the police is very satisfied. The general public particularly appreciates, that there is now at least one area where it can shop quietly and undisturbed by motor traffic.” (Utrechts Nieuwsblad 3-11-1966)
That business success is the conclusion of many a recent experiment as well. And that really may not come as a surprise. People on foot are the only people actually going into shops. No wonder that in those areas, where it is pleasant to be on foot, the shops flourish.
Every now and then you hear that people would like to be able to cycle in the Dutch car free shopping zones. But – to my knowledge – only my home town ʼs-Hertogenbosch has allowed that so far. The city reports that this is a successful measure. I can vouch that it can be quite practical, when you have to be in the area. But in my experience, traversing it, at the adjusted very low speed, takes more time than riding quickly around it. So it may not be so terrible that these areas are closed to cycling.
It will be interesting to see if all the car free shopping zones will survive as they are now. Shopping habits are changing quickly with all the purchases made via the internet nowadays. Some towns already see a lot of vacant shops. Time will tell if the car free shopping zones in the Netherlands will stay successful the next half century.