The Baby Carriage Blockades

By Peter Norton

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Oct 10, 2019 · 9 min read
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Stop de Kindermoord in the Netherlands: demonstrators block a dangerous intersection in Amsterdam, October 31, 1972. [ANP Historisch Archief]

Among advocates of safe, sustainable, and bike-friendly mobility, the Netherlands has long been the success story to point to. But in English-speaking countries, and especially in the car-dominated United States, how useful is the Netherlands as an example to emulate? The question has been divisive.

For a long time, a common notion got in the way: the assumption that the Netherlands must have an enlightened government that has always favored cycling. In countries lacking this advantage, of what use could the Dutch case be?

Then in 2011, articles in English began circulating about a mass movement in the Netherlands in the 1970s.[1] As it happened, Dutch people had to force their reluctant government to become more bike-friendly. In fact, these articles explained, officialdom had long favored motor vehicles at the expense of other street users. Dutch cities circa 1970 were much more car-friendly than they are today — and much more dangerous, especially for cyclists, pedestrians, and above all, children. Government policy was not enlightened, and did not change of its own accord. Change required a mass movement, including protests and demonstrations.

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Demonstrators block a dangerous intersection in Queens, New York, in 1959. Rush-hour pickets continued intermittently for weeks, until authorities promised (and eventually installed) a traffic light. [New York Amsterdam News, Jan. 31, 1959]

Stop de Kindermoord

The belated proliferation of articles in English about the movement finally set aside a frequent objection to the Dutch example. To “we’re not Amsterdam,” there was a new rejoinder: “Amsterdam wasn’t always Amsterdam.”[3] Achieving safer, more sustainable, and less car-dependent mobility does not require an enlightened government. The Dutch people proved it.

But the Dutch example remains divisive. Why? It seems that other notions have taken the place of the old “enlightened government” assumption. In particular — a common objection runs — the U.S. has no comparable history of popular opposition to automobile supremacy. There have always been critics, but after World War II they were confined to a social elite. There had been substantial popular opposition to car domination in cities in the 1920s, and there was criticism among urban elites in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the postwar U.S. there was — supposedly — nothing like Stop de Kindermoord: popular, collective, and vocal opposition to car domination that included street demonstrations and that cut across class lines. Most Americans were enthusiastic about cars; among those who were not, the preeminence of cars was generally accepted. There was little or no popular advocacy for pedestrian or child safety at drivers’ expense.

Such notions come easily to mind. Americans have grown up with versions of the “car culture” thesis: that Americans like and prefer cars, and that this preference is the biggest factor in the extent of car domination in the U.S. Maybe clever marketing and interest group lobbying has something to do with this, the thesis concedes, and maybe the preference is not rational, but Americans still prefer cars, even in settings that are poorly suited to them, and even to the point of putting up with their high financial, social, environmental, and safety costs.

The car culture thesis, also known as “America’s love affair with the automobile,” has endured in part because it is half true. Most people like cars and want to own one. But the preference is not absolute: where the alternatives are good, they’re often popular. And the “love affair” thesis has also endured because motordom developed it, nurtured it, and continues to promote it.

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After a coal truck killed two ten-year-old girls in East Harlem in 1949, mothers blocked the street at two points. The Daily News dubbed this demonstration a “baby carriage blockade.” There were many similar blockades in the 1950s and 1960s. [Ossie Leviness, New York Daily News, Feb. 16, 1949]

America’s Car Culture

But even in 1970, driving was far from universal. One in five U.S. households had no car; among the 10.7 million households in which the family income was less than $3,000 a year, 63 percent did not have one. About 56 percent of all licensed drivers were men, and 73 percent of all miles driven were driven by men. White people made 52 percent of their trips as car drivers, but only 37 percent of trips by people of color were as drivers. Among American school children in 1970, 42 percent walked or bicycled, compared to 38 percent who rode a school bus and 16 percent who were driven to school.[4] Car culture, even at its height, cannot offer a complete account of American mobility.

Given such disparities in automobility, policies favoring drivers must have been controversial, especially among women and people of color, since they drove less. Their criticisms, however, are absent from the popular “car culture” histories and the museum exhibits, and practically absent from academic articles as well. But all over America in the 1950s and 1960s, residents, particularly women, organized demonstrations against car traffic. Their street protests often closely resembled the Dutch Stop de Kindermoord protests of the 1970s. Demonstrators demanded slower driving, usually seeking stop signs, traffic lights, or crossing guards to help. Though most such demonstrations were in dense residential districts of large cities, many occurred in small cities, suburbs, and towns. Though white women predominated in most such demonstrations, black and Hispanic people organized some, and participated in many. Men often participated too, though generally as a small minority of the total.

Many of these demonstrations, and particularly the biggest ones, were triggered by the injury or death of a child. Against any tendency to blame the parents, demonstrators consistently demanded streets that local children could use safely. And while the demonstrations were nearly always nonviolent, they were vocal and insistent, and sometimes confrontational. They included some degree of traffic obstruction, and sometimes even full blockades that barred all motor vehicles.

Women bearing signs picketed streets and intersections or set up folding chairs across the breadth of streets and sat in them. Children often participated. A mainstay of the demonstrations was baby carriages, occupied or not, which rhetorically associated the demonstrations with motherhood and with the safety of children. The technique was common enough to lead some newspapers to give such demonstrations a name: “baby carriage blockades.”[5]

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On July 11 and 12, 1953, local mothers and children blocked an intersection in Philadelphia, demanding stop signs for safety. Stop signs were installed on July 13. [Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 13 April 1956. Courtesy Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia]

The Baby Carriage Blockades

This 1949 demonstration was not the first of its kind, but it appears to have been the first to be dubbed a “baby carriage blockade.” It bears much in common with typical traffic safety demonstrations of its era: most of the participants were women, in the company of their children. Their demand was primarily a plea for child safety, but without depriving children of their use of the streets. The demonstrators did not object to cars’ preeminence in their city; they merely wished to keep residential streets safe. They did not demand playgrounds so that children would not need streets; they demanded streets safe for children.

Demonstrations like this one were common in the 1950s and 60s, but gradually declined in frequency and scale thereafter. The decline coincided with suburbanization, a falling birthrate, and smaller families, but it also signaled the ascendancy of the now-preferred path to child traffic safety: the two-car family, the fenced playground, parental chauffeuring of children, a surrender to car dependency regardless of the costs or family income, and the abandonment of children’s independent mobility. Where streets were unsafe for children, the problem became the mother’s responsibility, and an injury or a death was seen as the mother’s fault.

When they were common, the protests remained isolated local affairs, with no national cohesion. Press interest was local only. But the era of the baby carriage blockades is a reminder that Americans of all classes resisted cars’ predominance and did so in decades we now recall as the height of car culture. These persistent and vocal protests give us cause to doubt that the Stop de Kindermoord movement in the Netherlands is too alien from the American experience to serve as a useful model. Indeed, Americans were engaging in Stop de Kindermoord demonstrations of their own long before the Dutch movement of that name.[8]

The U.S. and the Netherlands are unmistakably distinct cases. But we need not let exaggeration of the differences, influenced by motordom’s version of America’s car history, prevent us from learning from the Dutch example. Mark Wagenbuur of the blog Bicycle Dutch was one of the sources of the rediscovery of Stop de Kindermoord among English speakers. In his 2011 blog post and video about the Dutch movement, Wagenbuur concluded: “the Netherlands’ problems were and are not unique, their solutions shouldn’t be that either.”[9]

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2019.]

Peter Norton is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia and the author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.”

CITATIONS

[2] Vic Langenhoff, “Pressiegroep Stop de kindermoord,” De Tijd, Sep. 20, 1972.

[3] Lloyd Alter, “When It Comes to Cycling, Amsterdam Wasn’t Always Amsterdam,” TreeHugger, May 29, 2015; Alter quotes Cycling Professor (Marco te Brömmelstroet): “The argument that your city is not like Amsterdam is invalid. Neither was Amsterdam; it took long, radical effort” (May 26, 2015).

[4] Federal Highway Administration’s Nationwide Personal Transportation Study, reports 4, 6, 8, and 9 (1972–73).

[5] Norton, “Persistent Pedestrianism: Urban Walking in Motor Age America, 1920s — 1960s,” Urban History (forthcoming; will review several such demonstrations).

[6] Chicago Tribune, Feb. 14, 1949; New York Daily News, Feb. 15, 1949.

[7] Daily News, Feb. 16, 17, and 20, 1949.

[8] Though of course the Dutch, too, had struggled against car domination long before the 1970s. Cycling Cities series, published by the Foundation for the History of Technology (Eindhoven).

[9] Wagenbuur, “How the Dutch Got Their Cycling Infrastructure,” with video: “How the Dutch Got Their Cycle Paths,” Bicycle Dutch (blog), Oct. 20, 2011.

Vision Zero Cities Journal

An international journal of traffic safety innovation and…

TransAlt

Written by

TransAlt

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

Vision Zero Cities Journal

An international journal of traffic safety innovation and the global movement toward Vision Zero published by Transportation Alternatives.

TransAlt

Written by

TransAlt

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

Vision Zero Cities Journal

An international journal of traffic safety innovation and the global movement toward Vision Zero published by Transportation Alternatives.

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