Ask a few urbanists or cycling advocates what they wish North American cities looked like, and you’ll get a lot of the same answers: the Netherlands or Denmark (or maybe Paris). Holland’s pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban designs elicit admiring blog posts and articles on this side of the pond at a steady clip. Copenhagen’s bike lanes—and, not too far away, Oslo’s car-free downtown—attract their own share of starry-eyed fans (for the record, I like them too). Several of the most popular urbanist Twitter accounts are based in the Low Countries and Scandinavia, with many followers across the Atlantic.
Without a doubt, Europe offers much for city dwellers in the United States and Canada to admire. (After moving there from Vancouver, the authors of a recent book gushed, “We navigate Delft’s streets with our senses engaged, seemingly for the first time. And it’s something we believe the entire world deserves to experience firsthand.”) Here, our cities can be car-clogged miseries, as bad for drivers as for those of us who prefer to ride transit, bike, or walk. Many of Europe’s, in contrast, provide plenty of transit service and ample space for those walking or cycling, while low speed limits and parking restrictions treat cars as guests rather than masters (if they’re allowed at all).
But it’s not clear what we’re achieving by elevating the continent’s metropolises as idyllic places to enjoy a stroll or a bike ride. When I caught up recently with a friend who works at an American nonprofit promoting safe streets, he made a request: “Please don’t write another article praising Dutch bike paths.”
In the United States or Canada, stories extolling the splendors of exploring a Dutch or Danish city won’t do much to build support around constructing protected bike lanes, expanding transit service, or more generally making North American cities more accommodating to those who don’t drive. It’s too easy for a skeptical community leader or public official to dismiss an enthusiastic homage to European urban design with an offhanded “that’s nice, but here we want different things.” And then they’d explain why “taking away more parking spaces in this city is a terrible idea,” or why cycle-track expansions aren’t necessary “because bike lanes are often empty.” When portrayed as utopian, European approaches become easy to dismiss.
That’s not to say Americans and Canadians should ignore what’s happening in Europe—far from it. But the most useful accounts will do more than sketch continental fantasylands of urban mobility; they’ll identify specific policies that have helped nudge people toward multimodal living, considering whether and how they could succeed in this hemisphere. Better yet, they will appreciate the politics behind European transportation, reminding North Americans that Europeans haven’t always had such impressive mobility infrastructure; they’ve worked hard to make cycling, transit, and walking viable alternatives to driving (and they’re still working for it).
Here’s an example: Many Americans are aware of the Dutch penchant for cycling, but few seem to know that Holland’s cities used to be jam-packed with motor vehicles. When the famed American urbanist Lewis Mumford visited Amsterdam in the 1950s, he complained in a New Yorker essay that “the parked cars so effectively line the canals of the central city that they completely spoil the landscape.” Mumford noted that automobiles created an unusual kind of hazard in that canal-covered city: “The municipality has had to give instructions to motorists for escaping when the car has tumbled into the water, as cars frequently do.”
Dutch activists battled to chart a different course, with contentious protests such as one in 1971 that involved 60 cyclists biking as slowly as possible through Amsterdam’s city center. Car owners responded angrily—and sometimes violently—but the reformers won out. Similar tensions emerged in other European cities now cited as multimodal models. Jan Gehl, the Danish architect whose ideas helped bring about Copenhagen’s renowned bike lane network, has said that during the 1960s “one group was pushing cars out of the city, while others were trying to push them in.” That sounds like many North American cities today.
Learning about such struggles could remind us that multimodalism does not spring from some innate quality that Europeans possess and North Americans lack. After all, Gehl says that opponents of Copenhagen’s street redesigns argued that “we are Danes, not Italians,” stereotyping a country that, to be fair, did give us The Bicycle Thief. (“It turns out we are Italians after all,” I heard him quip at a conference a few years ago.)
Gehl’s experience offers a powerful rejoinder to those who today brush aside the impressive bike lane networks and car restrictions of European cities by claiming that Americans (and Canadians) are simply different.
Sharing accounts of European reformers overcoming opposition can dispel the notion, still widespread in North America, that restricting cars from the urban core is tantamount to committing political suicide. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, easily won reelection in 2020 after transforming France’s capital with measures like converting a thoroughfare along the Seine into a car-free riverbank path. (She’s been very upfront about reducing the number of cars in Paris.) In Madrid, the mayor who restricted cars from accessing the city center did lose reelection, but a groundswell of popular fury forced her successor to halt his efforts to rescind those policies (the Spanish supreme court later ruled against the restrictions on procedural grounds).
Highlighting such episodes could strengthen the resolve of American and Canadian elected officials concerned about their political future if they impose decongestion pricing or build a controversial bike lane network. Bloomberg CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan and Slate’s Henry Grabar have written terrific articles along these lines, and we can use many more.
Also helpful are nuts-and-bolts accounts of how, exactly, European cities are becoming more multimodal. Sharing decongestion pricing’s success in London and Stockholm can help Americans appreciate the potential benefits, as well as recognize that popular support tends to grow over time. Not all European policies are easily brought across the Atlantic (such as higher taxes on gasoline), but there are plenty that could be. I myself tried to draw attention to one when I pointed out in CityLab that e-cargo bikes are more widely adopted in Europe than in the United States because European cities have restricted delivery van access in ways that American ones have not.
There are many more European mobility policies whose lessons might be compelling to North Americans—if only we knew what they were. Countries including Lithuania and France have offered “transit for clunkers” programs inviting residents to exchange their car for a transit pass (and often for micromobility credit as well). How effective have these campaigns been? What would it take to replicate them in the United States or Canada? I couldn’t tell you; they’ve attracted minimal attention here.
By putting a spotlight on such programs, journalists and activists can provide ideas for North American officials searching for ways to spur mode shift in their city. But another tribute to the pleasures of biking along Dutch canals on the way to a bistro? It might inspire a few envious readers to book their next vacation. But it probably won’t spur the rethink of mobility policy that our cities urgently need.