Amsterdam - Politics of Sustainability?

Referendum, what is it all about?

There is a lot of wishful thinking when it comes to looking for successes for sustainable transport in cities. The following article was written in 1992 for publication in Eastern European environmental magazines. It describes the Amsterdam traffic referendum of March 1992 and the attitude of the environmental groups and their opponents. (Source:
Anti-car demonstrators blocked automobile traffic in Amsterdam's historic Damrak area June 26th, in protest against signs that the city government was backing away from an ambitious car reduction plan. Demonstrators used a blow-torch to cut a car in half, symbolizing the plan to cut auto use by half.

The plan which won the support of 53% of voters in a March 1992 referendum, calls on the city government to halve automobile traffic and parking spaces in Amsterdam's heart by the year 2002. It also provides for auto-free streets, bike lanes, enlarged pedestrian walks, an 18-mph automobile speed limit, $2.25 parking meter fees, and $70 parking violation fines.

The Netherlands has pioneered auto-reduction efforts with such cities as Delft, Groningen, and Amsterdam spearheading traffic banning and calming measures. According to Amsterdam's auto-free group, Platform for a Car-Free Inner City, the government has hinted it might renege on the 50% cut. One leading City Council member who oversees transportation matters recently declared that the plan's goals would be too harsh on motorists. (Auto-Free Press, Sept/Oct 93)

Success and failure of Amsterdam traffic referendum

The closer you get to the Dutch capital, the more likely you are to hear derisory remarks about the Amsterdam car referendum held last spring. For some reason mainly intellectuals and media took a condescending position towards the plebiscite from the start. The disappointingly low turnout at the ballotbox added to this. But in spite of the low turnout City Council decided to recognize the outcome: much less space for cars. The action committee that has fought from the beginning to get as many people as possible to vote against cars still considers it has scored a victory.

The situation in Amsterdam is unique. Here you have an old inner city that dates largely from the golden seventeenth century but was never damaged by invasions or bombardments. In this part of the city with its canals and small streets about eighty thousand people work and live. So unlike in many other cities the referendum area was not the rather small shopping district where hardly anybody lives, but a real, living and important part of the town.


The decision to hold a referendum about cars was not actuated by environmental considerations, but developed rather accidentally out of a specific political situation. A relatively low turnout at local elections and bad results for the traditionally strongest party, the Social Democrats, led to this 'experiment'. When called upon by city government to send in suggestions for a topic to put to a poll of the people, many citizens proposed 'the automobile' as a subject, more specifically cars as a nuisance.

In this flat country every inhabitant owns at least one bicycle, 65 percent of all individual displacements in the city are effected by bicycle, on foot or by public transport. Still, in Amsterdam parked or moving cars take up one third of street space. In the narrow inner city streets traffic participants wage a daily war for scarse public space. But the strongest minority wins, to the detriment of weaker groups like the elderly, children and cyclists. A sad illustration are the 42 people killed and 3.265 wounded in 1990, most of which were cyclists or pedestrians, who have lost out in the confrontation with evermore agressive cardrivers.

From the start, the proposal to hold a plebiscite met with fierce opposition. Powerful city center shop owners went to court to try and ban the whole experiment. They feared a drop in turnover if costumers were inhibited to use their cars to drive and buy, notwithstanding surveys showing that only twenty percent of the buyers use their cars to shop. Eight in ten come in on foot, use their bicycle, or take public transport (tram) that can pride itself on a dense network, especially in the inner city.


Of course the shopkeepers lost their case in court. The judges' decision was the starting point of a short, but rather heated three month campaign. According to a recent report by two bureaus for statistical investigation the referendum drew the attention of many people that are normally not interested in city politics. They started reading publications or went to one or more meetings and developed their own opinion on the subject. That the turnout on March 25 was to be only over 27 percent, much lower than the predicted over sixty, had other reasons and was partly due to the lack of clarity of the wording of the question put to the vote and the not very neutralist interventions by pro car politicians.

From the start, several traffic action groups actively involved themselves. These included the Real Dutch Cyclist Union (ENFB), Stop Child Murder, Friends of the Earth, Amsterdam Ecology Centre and others. They formed a Platform for an Inner City Without Cars and pleaded with the city government to simplify the question to be put to the vote. Either you go on like before, by implementing measures that can only try to curb the explosive autonomous growth of car use, without solving the underlying problem. Or you opt for a city where in the first decade of next century the car will be the exception, only used by those that can't do without. Like people with a handicap, police, fire-brigade, and other indispensable services.

Ultimately the choice put before the citizens was much less clear. Option A signified continuation of current policies, which according to some politicians in itself would lead to a slowdown in growth of car use. Option B should lead to a reduction of space for cars by half within ten years. This reduction of space was mainly defined as a reduction of parking space. Illegal parkings should disappear. Of the 23.000 official parking places only 11.500 should stay in use after the year 2002.

Many consequences of both choices were not clearly defined. Still the Platform for a Carfree Amsterdam decided to involve itself in the campaign. 'If we would not have done this, the referendum would have become an absolute failure, I'm sure', now states Wijnand Duijvendak, who coordinated the work of the Platform during the three month campaign. The Platform's campaign was financed by private donations and partly by subsidies from city government.


The Platform opted for a positive approach in its campaign: to stress the gains an inner city with much less cars would bring to the majority of its users and inhabitants. Its four slogans, in leaflets as well as on prettily coloured wallposters all over the city, reflected this positive outlook: fewer cars means more space, more safety, more air and much greater accessibility for most inner city users.

The central aim of the campaign would be to mobilize potential supporters, rather than trying to convert confirmed car drivers. From the beginning polls showed a significant majority for B - less cars. The Platform's aim would be to keep them on its side and argue the absolute need to turn out on referendum day.

In its campaign the Platforms strived to bring to the forefront the weaker participants in traffic, like the elderly, children and cyclists. Among other things this resulted in a childrens' referendum. In it over seventy percent of 1250 pupils from sixteen primary schools voted for option B. This got extensive coverage from national and local media. Because the campaign was short, ideas for involving the elderly, for instance by organizing a similar referendum in elderly homes, could not be put into practice.

Once their strategy to have the referendum banned had failed, the biggest promotors of the use of cars started their own campaign. These included the Chamber of Commerce, backed by the local trade union central and a committee of local individuals under the selfevident name 'Residents and companies want to park their car'.

Their message: vote for A, roughly the continuation of existing policies. Interestingly, they never questioned the positive effects of much less car traffic on air pollution, traffic casualties and general atmosfere. They decided to paint a grim image of B: Less cars would lead to an economically dying museum city, where unemployment would rise by the loss of twenty thousand jobs, investment would decline and unhappy people would be condemned to travel in overcrowded trams.


The Platform struck back with reports that showed that talk about loss of employment and investors was just a red herring. Examples like the town of Groningen in the north of the Netherlands showed that stricter traffic restraints lead to a small drop in the turnover of local shopkeepers and catering for a short period only, but that these quickly go back to normal. German experience shows a more vital economy in cities stimulating public transport and curbing car traffic. As said above, only twenty percent of Amsterdam shoppers come by car. A survey showed that of these, another 63 percent would still come to the inner city but use public transport if B was to be adopted. A more attractive climate would, at the same time, draw more public to inner city shops, so the general effect on profits might as well be rather positive.

Access to the Amsterdam inner city at the moment is mostly threatened by continuous traffic jams. Reduction of cars in line with option B would eventually lead to more space for economically essential traffic. Most companies absolutely depending on rapid access by car already left the city a long time ago, because of traffic congestion. Maybe a few more would leave, but their place would quickly be taken by many of the small scale enterprises that form the natural heart of economic life in inner cities.

The Platform tried to divide its opponents by solliciting signatures from city companies sympathizing with its goals. Some trade union members wrote letters to their national secretaries, complaining that local union centrals views went against national positions on traffic policies taken before. As a result, the local traffic workers union distanced itself from the 'A-campaign'.


A difficult issue is cars belonging to residents of the inner city. The official wording of option B only stated 'much less space for cars', a provisional scenario explained this would mean a reduction of parking space by half within ten years. At this moment over eight thousand residents of the inner city own a car. The Platform proposed to let these people keep their parking permits, but refuse such a permit to newcomers. In this way car owning in the inner city would eventually fade away. This would be a more just solution than making parking space more expensive by relying on market mechanisms and thereby turning parking into an exclusive provision for the well-to-do.

Because the consequences of option B were unclear, a lot of arguments became mixed up in the weeks leading up to the referendum. In a grim polarisation, protagonists accused each other of mispresenting the choice to the voters. The Council's Finance Committee Chairman, belonging to the minority right wing liberal party, who was against car banning measures from the beginning, added to the confusion by stating that the city would not be able to finance the implementation of option B.

Election day finally came, polls had predicted a turnout of around sixty percent and a victory for B. The latter proved to be true, the former turned out to be much lower. Only 27.68 percent of the voters went to the ballot box, 52.96 percent chose B, 45.64 percent voted for A. Participation was highest in the inner city and bordering neighbourhoods.

That same night the main political parties announced they would respect the outcome. The City Council had never set a minimum turnout as a criterion for judging representativity. In countries with more experience in direct democracy like Switzerland, a plebiscite is usually considered a succes if at least half the population turns up that voted at the last local election. In Amsterdam this was the case.


On hearing the politicians' announcement in the hot local television studio the Platform cheered its victory, while representatives of the Chamber of Commerce wondered how this could have happened.

Afterwards, much has been said about succes or failure. From the beginning the Platform had criticized the City Councils set-up, in which consequences of both options were not very clear. Many citizens distrusted the intentions of city politicians, owing to their overt interventions in undermining the status of the referendum. According to an already mentioned survey, to be published in September 1992, sixty percent intended to vote, but most of them changed their mind out of distrust. The fact that from the beginning the council refused to state that it would respect the outcome was decisive in this, says the survey. Even now, after the City Council have officially announced they will start working towards a city with much less cars, only eightteen percent of the Amsterdam population believes this. At the same time, a large majority of the population remains in favour of continuing to use the referendum as a means of direct democracy.

The Platform's former coordinator Wijnand Duijvendak also remains sceptical about City Hall's intentions. 'We never thought the referendum would end the discussion. We saw it as an important moment to talk traffic policies with larger groups of citizens. If we had lost, the discussion would have been closed for the next five, possibly ten years. But we never thought the referendum in itself would automatically lead to a radical change in policies. We will have to continue to exert pressure on the City government, by direct action if need be.'


The first documents produced since March, are not very encouraging. Essentially, the proposals boil down to intensifying implementation of existing legislation, for instance against illegal parking by cars and installing some more parking racks for bicycles. Also City Council is considering proposals to shut down one shopping street to car traffic on Saturdays. All the more far-reaching interventions in traffic policies are to be postponed until after the next local elections in 1994.

At this speed, Amsterdam might well end up in last place behind those world cities looking for solutions to insupportable car pressures. While German cities like Lubeck, Aix-la-Chapelle and Saarbrucken and Zurich in Switzerland score astonishing results by limiting traffic speed to thirty, reducing road space and limiting access to cars and promoting public transport, in Amsterdam day to day struggles over public space continue, between cars on the one hand, and cyclists, pedestrians and public transport on the other. Yet, in 250 streets with a total lenght of about 240 kilometers traffic noise exceeds legal norms, in one fifth of these streets combined with air pollution well over the government's allowed maximum. Without intervention, car traffic in and around Amsterdam may well double between now and 2005, says a recent traffic report commissioned by a regional body of twenty cities including Amsterdam itself.

One thing the action groups have won however, says Duijvendak. 'Many hundreds of people from all layers of the population volunteered to be active in our campaign. If necessary, we will call upon them. As a group, we have proven our credibility and the strength of our argumentation. We are developing more contacts with active people in neighbourhoods inside and just around the inner city. A car might be a wonderful thing for the individual driver, for the city as a whole it proves to be a nightmare. If we do nothing, that nightmare will just get worse.'

Harrie Lindelauff

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Updated 20 March 2000