A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part Three

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Part one is here, and part two is here.


Crashworthiness Paradigm: 1960s-1980s

“We have drivers performing millions of maneuvers in their automobile adequately, even overpowering the deficiencies of their automobile…and then they make that one mistake, and should they die for that one mistake?…[W]e should build cars that take into effect that one, or those two mistakes…”  -Ralph Nader, U.S. Senate traffic safety hearings, 1965

  Image courtesy of   WNPR  .  Pictured in the foreground is a Chevrolet Corvair, a model that Nader mentioned was poorly designed and especially unsafe for occupants.

Image courtesy of WNPR.  Pictured in the foreground is a Chevrolet Corvair, a model that Nader mentioned was poorly designed and especially unsafe for occupants.

During the 1960s, safety experts and congressmen began to criticize the efficacies of the ‘Three E’s approach especially in regards to its goal of optimizing driver behavior.  The issue of pedestrian safety was less apparent than in previous paradigms.  For many, the decades of educational campaigns, traffic engineering, and enforcement mechanisms were not successful in mitigating the number of vehicle collisions and subsequent fatalities.  Although fatalities declined during World War II in relation to war rations and the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the total number of deaths and the rate of fatalities per VMT increased during the 1950s and especially during the 1960s. In 1965, for example, vehicle fatalities totaled 48,000 persons, and that number would continue to increase into the 1970s.  So instead of the ‘collision avoidance’ proposition that was advocated in the previous paradigm, safety advocates shifted towards a ‘collision inevitability’ approach that recognized the range of errors that drivers are bound to make behind the wheel.  At a Senate hearing for encouraging new crash-worthy vehicle safety practices, Senator Abraham Ribicoff underscores the ‘collision inevitability’ approach with the following statement:

“The driver has many faults.  He is negligent; he is careless; he is reckless.  We understand that…I think it will be the millennium if you will ever get a situation where the millions and millions of drivers will all be perfect.  They will always be making errors and making mistakes.”

This should not be interpreted as a laissez-faire response to vehicle fatalities but rather as a distinct shift of responsibility from the driver to vehicle, or more specifically the automotive manufacturer.  If drivers would inevitably land on a spectrum between ineptitude and recklessness, then safety experts and advocates must work with automobile companies to reduce the effects of vehicular collisions and lower the risk of injury or death.  Jameson Wetmore describes how safety-oriented researchers and doctors began using the term “second collision”–that between the vehicle’s occupants colliding with the vehicle’s interior–as way to discuss overall risk reduction.  Structural reinforcements to the vehicle in addition to safety improvements within the vehicle’s interior would, according to safety advocates, decrease the intensity of occupant injury and likelihood of fatalities.

The automobile industry was hesitant to incorporate the crashworthiness approach into their business models. One reason was that the previous argument of auto companies–user error is the chief cause of traffic accidents–would be undermined by the positional shift.  Another reason concerned the company bottom line and the marketing efforts towards that end.  During the early stage of this paradigm a number of safety enhancements were proposed, such as collapsible steering columns and padded dashboards.  The “Big Three” auto companies (Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet) contended that “safety doesn’t sell” and, according to Ladd, they did not include updated safety features as a means to keep costs down and remain competitive.  During the aforementioned Senate hearings, Senator Ribicoff argued that safety should not be optional features subject to marketing input but rather standard on all models: “It is a question of selling him safety or do you have a responsibility of producing a safe car with safety items?”   

  Image courtesy of    LBJ Presidential Library

Image courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library

 In 1966 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established.  The previous claims of the automobile being “perfected by science and industry” were no longer valid, and laws followed that would mandate safety features within new automobiles.  Notably, the total number of vehicle fatalities began decreasing into the 1970s and 1980s.   


A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part Two

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Part one is here

Control Paradigm: 1920s-1960s

“…[While] the automobile of today is as nearly perfect as science and industry can make it…the driver, figuratively speaking, is still wearing rompers.  He just hasn’t been able to keep up with improvements made on the road and the machine.”  

-John Maher, Mind over Motor

  Image courtesy of Fighting Traffic Facebook page

Image courtesy of Fighting Traffic Facebook page

The education, engineering, and enforcement efforts of various entities within the prior paradigm were influential in lowering the rate of traffic fatalities.  Given the steady increase in driver registrations, however, the overall number of fatalities continued to increase into the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, traffic fatalities increased almost 15% to a total of over 36,000 persons.  Rather than surmising a particular threshold of fatalities that would therefore therefore elicit political intervention, Steve Bernadin contends that “motordom members” were powerful enough to overcome divergent interests and rationalize the persistent problem of traffic fatalities. The primary way they did this was to absolve the vehicle–and its primary product of speed–from contempt and place culpability on the driver. 

 During this paradigm, industry reports, magazine articles, and even drivers’ manuals begin to describe the vehicle as a “perfect product”.  In his book Mind over Motor John Maher describes the automobile as “one of the finest products of the American age” while criticizing the driver’s ability to properly handle such a product.  Blanke quotes a 1937 drivers’ manual that describes the automobile as “nearly perfect as science and industry can make it…”.  The alleged accomplishments in automobile safety coupled with the advances in roadway engineering meant that the driver was the final element in attaining a safe driving environment.  Those who eschewed safe driving practices were characterized as inept at best and reckless at worst.  The former was assigned to both new drivers and non-drivers equally; young drivers must learn how to control and maintain their vehicle, while non-drivers must learn that the street is the domain of motorized traffic.  In this regard, both motorists and pedestrians could therefore exhibit reckless or careless behavior.  The more concerning issue, however, was not the inept drivers but the reckless drivers who in the words of Secretary Hoover were the “largest of the contributors” to the rising amount of fatalities.  It was these drivers to whom multiple organizations would appeal. 

Attempts to reach the reckless driver consisted of various voluntary appeals.  Some campaigns used pictures of mangled vehicles and deceased motorists to scare the driver into proper behavior.  Paul Hoffman, President of the Automotive Safety Foundation and former executive for Studebaker, viewed such campaigns as ineffective and propounded that scientific traffic policies are “a rational approach to an emotional problem”.  A collection of organizations researched methods and practices that would help identify the people groups wherein reckless driving may occur.  Jeremy Packer describes how psychologists developed character typologies and sociologists posited theories of estrangement and deviant behavior among adolescents.  Insurance companies paired their actuarial science with voluntary programs like the “Not Over 50 Club” which distributed vehicle stickers for drivers who presumably did not drive over 50 miles per hour. 

Although no longer exclusive to the NSC, the ‘Three E’s’ remained in service during this paradigm.  The role of education in training youth was especially heightened; not only were efforts to encourage playtime in park spaces reinforced, but training materials were geared toward young people with the assumption that they would eventually become drivers.  Regarding engineering, organizations created during the first paradigm (e.g. Institute of Traffic Engineers, American Association of State Highway Officials) worked with Congress to develop roadway studies and traffic safety reports.  The 1946 Action Program for Traffic Safety was a summation of accident prevention policies and practices that municipalities and safety organizations were instructed to use.  Local enforcement mechanisms were less the result of trial and error and more the recommendations of traffic engineers and city managers.  

During the 1940s, representatives of automotive interest groups including Paul Hoffman were looking for momentum at the federal executive and congressional level.  This was especially difficult as the realities of World War II were more pressing to lawmakers.  Nonetheless Hoffman and others worked with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to advance automotive safety; they maintained that a free-flowing transportation network is crucial in both peacetime and wartime, and after World War II they recruited military leaders and declared a “war against accidents”.  The intent was to elevate the ‘Three E’s’ of traffic safety as an important issue for both congressman and their constituents, with the awareness of the latter encouraging the accountability of the former.  Using similar military-themed rhetoric President Eisenhower launched The Crusade for Traffic Safety in 1954, a media campaign designed to propagate the message of traffic safety throughout the country.  The campaign featured a pledge that included the elements of personal responsibility and morality indicative throughout the control paradigm: “I personally pledge myself to drive and walk safely and think in terms of safety.  I give this pledge in seriousness and earnestness, having considered fully my obligation to protect my life and the lives of my family and my fellow men.”


A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part One

  Image courtesy of    Shorpy

Image courtesy of Shorpy

Vision Zero. Complete Streets. Safe Routes to School.  “Awareness Weeks”.  Each of these initiatives highlight the interest of many governmental agencies and advocacy groups to provide safe transportation networks for motorists and active transportation modes alike.   Such initiatives regarding traffic safety in general, and the reduction of traffic fatalities in particular, are not new but in fact part of a broad history of traffic-related safety reforms.  What can we learn from safety reforms of the past, particularly between motorists and pedestrians?  In what ways did the efforts of administrative, political, and professional interest groups shift societal perceptions of the risks and responsibilities associated with driving or walking?  Given the persistency of complex, multimodal transportation networks in urban settings, a larger question exists: Who are streets for? 

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety in the United States. The overview will focus on the safety conflicts that emerged during the proliferation of the automobile in the early- to mid-20th century.  Each post will analyze the evolution of traffic safety paradigms from the early 1900s to present as described by Peter Norton.  Side note - most of the images have been sourced from research that Peter Norton has done over the years.  His work serves as the inspiration for this series. A consideration of how historical traffic safety reforms can inform contemporary dialogue on automated vehicles is also included. 

“Safety First” Paradigm: 1900s-1920s

“It is quite generally understood that roads are for the common use of all and not the private property of a few rich enthusiasts…[these rights] come to him through no statute law.  The doctrine that streets are for the public is part of our common law and is so old that we may safely hazard a guess that it is coeval with the existence of highways themselves…” 

 -John Farson, President, American Automobile Association, 1906

The first recorded traffic fatality between a vehicle and a pedestrian occurred on September 3, 1899 in New York City.  Arthur Smith, the driver of a new “electric carriage”, attempted to pass a streetcar on the right when he hit New York realtor H. H. Bliss who was exiting a streetcar. The incident exemplifies the nascent conflict between motorists and non-motorists; whereas Mr. Bliss would have considered his presence in the roadway as normative behavior, Mr. Smith may have tacitly understood that streets are for moving traffic.  Bliss’ death was not an outlier but rather the beginning of a trend of traffic fatalities involving motorists and pedestrians.  In 1906 the U.S. Census included motor vehicle collisions as a significant cause of death in the fifteen states that were reporting. 

The phenomena of vehicular collisions continued in the 1910s and became especially acute in the 1920s when over 20,000 people were killed in that decade. Some common characteristics emerged.  The majority of fatalities involved non-motorists, specifically pedestrians and children, and they occurred in dense urban areas. In fact, pedestrians comprised over two-thirds of traffic fatalities in municipalities with a population of 25,000 persons or higher.

The responses of both rural and urban dwellers alike included anger, accusation, and grief.  Brian Ladd shares accounts of rural residents retaliating against what they perceived as a mis-user of roads.  Folks were known to throw stones at drivers, plow up roads, and even tie ropes and wires across the road to prevent drivers from crossing. Examples of sanctioned enforcement within towns and cities abound as well: Seabrook, New Hampshire was one of the first communities to set up a “speed trap” for motorists while municipalities such as Glencoe, Illinois installed a speed bump across its primary road.   Non-motorists characterized automobile owners as an elite group of “joy riders” whose leisurely pursuits disrupted the in-common character of the street.  Municipalities and organizations in particular conducted a range of public displays during this paradigm to mourn the dead and call attention to the issue.  Cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis erected monuments to honor those killed in traffic collisions, namely children.  Local safety movements often constructed more macabre displays; for example, in 1920 a float in the Milwaukee Safety Week parade included a crashed car driven by a character resembling Satan.  City newspapers amplified this, characterizing the automobile as the Grim Reaper or the “Modern Moloch”.



These local safety events were initiated by member affiliates of the National Safety Council (NSC). Established in 1913, the NSC was the first nationally organized effort to counter the problem of traffic accidents.  Its slogan, “Safety First”, was adopted by motorists and non-motorists alike; both groups initially subscribed to the notion that a commitment to safety would foster positive outcomes for all users of the roadway.  

The NSC was particularly known for how it operationalized the ‘Three E’s’ of education, engineering, and enforcement to its local chapters. Educational campaigns made up a large portion of the organization’s efforts; these campaigns included the recruitment of older children to serve as crossing guards as well as the encouragement of families to spend playtime in parks rather than in streets.  Municipalities used educational campaigns and regulatory tools to curb children playing in the streets as well.  In his book “Down the Asphalt Path”, Clay McShane notes that the New York Police Department spent a season arresting children who were caught playing in the street.

Engineers were viewed as playing an instrumental role in the reduction of traffic accidents.  The idea that roadways existed for the utilitarian purpose of moving traffic emerged in the late 1800s.  Engineering periodicals began referring to select streets as ‘arteries’ for traffic movement, while one engineer declared that the “facility of communication” was critical for human progress.  In this regard, a street became less of a multi-activity public realm and more of a public utility of which movement, not mobility or accessibility, was the primary aim.  Ostensibly, the enhancement of auto-mobility would reduce traffic congestion and yield improvements in traffic safety.  Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover highlights this potential during the 1926 National Conference on Street and Highway Safety when he says, “…if we are to find a permanent solution for the problem of traffic accidents we must at the same time discover a permanent solution for the problem of traffic itself.”  

The ‘enforcement’ element of the ‘Three E’s’ was largely performed through trial-and-error experiments by municipal police departments.  Long before federal funding mechanisms or engineering designs were in place, police officers worked to move, calm, and prohibit vehicle traffic within existing urban constraints .  Notably, police officials employed different materials or products to assist with traffic control and vehicle speed in particular.  Posts placed at the center of an intersection were referred to as “silent policemen” and encouraged drivers to make wide left turns instead of cutting corners.  Some cities used the “Milwaukee Mushroom”, an illuminated steel dome that was placed in a roadway to guide and calm traffic.  

The emphasis on vehicle speed reduction met a potential technological solution: The installation of mechanical governors on automobile engines.  Such an innovation, when paired with street infrastructure solutions like silent policemen, could phase out the need for traffic police attempting to reduce vehicle speeds in urban settings. In 1923, nearly ten percent of Cincinnati residents signed a petition to establish a local ordinance requiring all motor vehicles to have governors that would limit speeds to 25 miles per hour.  Pro-motoring interests in the city responded with a successful local opposition campaign, and the prospect of further legal or mechanical restrictions influenced auto advocates to organize regional and national campaigns beyond the efforts of the NSC. 

  Image courtesy of Peter Norton

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

The tools deployed by what Peter Norton calls “motordom” were markedly similar to those of non-motorists in years prior.  Whereas the elite motorists were characterized as “joyriders”, city dwellers who walked in the street were called “jaywalkers”, people whose walking habits were out of place in a motorized city.  Jaywalking campaigns were conducted across the country; the Boy Scouts distributed anti-jaywalking leaflets, and parades with floats of so-called jaywalkers called attention to the unsafe practice. Automobile interest groups began leaving the NSC to establish their own safety organizations, many of which were funded by the automobile industry. These organizations, along with automobile touring clubs, created their own publications that aimed to redistribute the responsibilities of safety on public roadways.  Touring Topics magazine argued for all pedestrians to take “a personal course in automobile driving” to rectify the practice of jaywalking.  The Automobile Club of Southern California used radio airtime to promote “pedestrian control” practices prior to a bond measure to fund pedestrian tunnels in Los Angeles.  The press release for the 1924 National Conference on Street and Highway Safety states that “pedestrians are often as flagrant offenders” as drivers . Such examples illustrate that the “Safety First” paradigm was primarily one of social, not physical, reconstruction.

 Image courtesy of Peter Norton

Image courtesy of Peter Norton



The Traffic Circulation Plan, Continued: Evolution, Current Strategy and Challenges.

This is part three in a three-part series on the history of the Traffic Circulation Plan (TCP) in Groningen, Netherlands. Part one is here, and part two is here. The content was originally an assignment for History & Theory of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a master’s candidate in the College of Urban Planning and Policy.  I’d like to thank Lennart Nout and Chris Brundlett at Modacity for their input and resource-sharing.  I’d also like to thank Vincent Ziols who also contributed to the paper.

  Vismarkt, 1968.  Image Courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Vismarkt, 1968.  Image Courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

In the late 1970s, the PvdA and municipal administration revised elements of the TCP as well as expanded car-limited traffic schemes in other areas of the city. The 1978-1982 Municipal Programme sought to create a plan that would extend the TCP into adjacent residential neighborhoods. The PvdA retained its political majority, and as such was able to adhere to the same principles and practices that were employed in the TCP. Their Traffic and Transport Plan was approved by the city council in 1982.  

  Vismarkt today. Image courtesy of    Wikimedia   .

Vismarkt today. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

As mode share shifted in subsequent years, city officials considered plans that would not merely reinforce the car-limited traffic plans but would also increase bicycle usage among citizens. The latest plan, Groningen Cycling City, was developed in 2015 and represents the city’s efforts to keep the bicycle as a normative and relevant means of transportation. The plan includes capital improvement strategies designed to enhance the safety and utility of bicycle paths. Heated lanes, expanded indoor parking, and stoplight-free “smart routes” are among the many projects outlined in the plan.   

  Image courtesy of    Bicycle Dutch

Image courtesy of Bicycle Dutch

As Groningen’s population grows, city officials must work to ensure that their streets function as public spaces for all types of transportation modes, not least bicycle users. The city’s Vice Mayor for Mobility recently stated that the city is making a concerted effort to ensure the bicycle remains the primary mode of transport. At the same time, the proliferation of the bicycle has resulted in some of the transportation challenges exhibited by the influx of the automobile in the 1960s, albeit to a different degree. Congestion, parking, and even pedestrian safety are all concerns expressed by citizens and city officials.  Although such challenges are not insignificant, the traffic reforms necessary to remediate will certainly be more incremental than the comprehensive, car-limited plans created in the 1970s.

  Image courtesy of     Imgur

Image courtesy of Imgur

This series has provided a history and critique of the actors and events which led to the creation of the Traffic Circulation Plan, a car-limited planning intervention in the City of Groningen, Netherlands.  The plan is largely responsible for creating the conditions necessary for normative bicycle transportation for its residents.  Although Max Van Den Berg and other PvdA members espoused the concept of citizen participation in its official planning documents, there is little evidence to suggest that citizens were involved in the plan’s creation or implementation.  The absence of participation was a central argument among the shopkeepers and business owners who were opposed to the plan.

As the city encounters new bicycle-oriented traffic challenges, its municipal planners are advised to develop a collaborative, multi-actor planning approach as part of an effective governance strategy.  Inviting stakeholders to contribute to the plan-making process is an essential element in creating an effective, sustainable plan.


Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.”  JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969. 

Boyko, Christopher.  “Groningen’s Binnenstad: Informed Perceptions on its Design.”  Accessed         10 November 2017.  https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/7035688.pdf

Bruntlett, Chris and Melissa.  2016. “How Groningen gained (and hopes to retain) the title of     ‘The World’s Cycling City’.  Daily Hive Vancouver, September 28.  Accessed 28 October         2017. http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/how-groningen-gained-and-hopes-to-retain-the-        title-of-the-worlds-cycling-city-photos-video

Bruntlett, Chris and Melissa.  2017.  “How Groningen’s Bold Moves Built ‘The World’s Cycling     City’. Modacity, May 30.  Accessed 28 October 2017. http://www.modacitylife.com/blog/        groningens-worlds-cycling-city

CROW Fietsberaad.  “Continuous and Integral: The cycling policies of Groningen and other         European cities.” Amsterdam: Fietsberaad, 2006.

CROW Fietsberaad.  “Verkeerscirculatieplan  Groningen.”  Accessed 14 November 2017. http://www.fietsberaad.nl/library/repository/bestanden/lenvcpgroningen.pdf

Fishman, Robert. “Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd         Wright, Le Corbusier.” The MIT Press. 16, September 1982.

Forester, John.  “Challenges of Deliberation and Participation”  In Readings in Planning Theory.        4th ed. Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.

Gemeente Groningen.  “Groningen Cycling City: Cycling Strategy 2015-2025.” Gemeente         Groningen, 2015. 

Golderberger, Paul. “Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92”. The New York Times, On         this day. 30, July 1981.

Groningen ImageBank.  Image search, Verkeerscirculatieplan 1977. Accessed 29 November         2017.  http://beeldbankgroningen.nl 

Hellemeier, Clemens, Mahdokht Soltaneihha.  “Implementation and Results of the Traffic         Circulation Plan in the City of Groningen.”  Stockholm University, 2010. 

Homrighausen, Jasper. 2015. Institutional Innovations in the Pursuit of Sustainable Mobility and     the Role of Collaboration and Coalitions.”  Master’s thesis, faculty of spatial sciences.          Groningen, Netherlands, University of Groningen, 2015. Accessed 1 December 2017. http://urbangrolab.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Jasper-Homrighausen-Master-Thesis-        Institutional-Innovations-in-Sustainable-Mobility.pdf

Karsijns, Nico, and Maurits Schilt.  “Groningen en het VCP.”  Presentation slides, University of         Groningen, October 16, 2003.  Accessed 14 November 2017.  http://www.rug.nl/staff/        p.h.pellenbarg/voordrachten/28.%20groningen%20en%20het                    %20verkeerscirculatieplan.pdf

Mans, Bruce Timothy.  2010.   “De binnenstad van Groningen.”  Accessed 4 November 2017.          https://issuu.com/brucemans/docs/groningen

Scott, James C. “Authoritarian high modernism,” Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemese to     Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press,         1988. 

Steinberg, Lior.  2014.  “Making Cycling Efficient and Cool: Groningen’s Smart Routes.”          September 17. Accessed 4 November 2017. https://www.lvblcity.com/blog/2014/9/        making-cycling-efficient-and-cool-groningens-smart-routes

Tsubohara, Shinji.  “Democratic Nature of Urban Development in Groningen in the 1980s: PTT,     Brink, Casino and Museum.”  University of Groningen. 2007.  Accessed 1 December         2017.  https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/14433114/315.pdf

Tsubohara, Shinji. “A Traffic Plan to Make Residential Areas Car-Limited.” University of         Groningen.  2007.  Accessed 21 October 2017.  http://www.rug.nl/research/portal/            nl/publications/a-traffic-plan-to-make-residential-areas-carlimited(7b243aed-ccd8-423a-        bc4f-b3d4fa517fb2).html 

Tsubohara, Shinji. “The Effect and Modification of the Traffic Circulation Plan (VCP): Traffic         Planning in Groningen in the 1980s.” University of Groningen.  2007.  Accessed 21 October 2017. http://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-effect-and-modification-of-the-traffic-circulation-plan-vcp--traffic-plannign-in-groningen-in-the-1980s(05114387-d1ba-4eaf-bd03-ded654f86061).html

Tsubohara, Shinji, and Henk Voogd.  “Planning Fundamental Urban Traffic Changes:             Experiences with the Groningen Traffic Circulation Scheme.”  Southampton, United Kingdom: WIT Press, 2004.

Tsubohara, Shinji, and Henk Voogd.  “Policy Network Theory: an Ex Post Planning Evaluation         Tool?”  In New Principles in Planning Evaluation: Urban Planning and Environment.         2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Van der Zee, Renate.  2015.  “How Groningen invented a cycling template for cities all over the         world.” The Guardian, July 29.  Accessed 4 November 2017.  http://dailyhive.com/        vancouver/how-groningen-gained-and-hopes-to-retain-the-title-of-the-worlds-cycling-        city-photos-video

Van Maanen, Gijs. “Deliberative Democracy in the Netherlands: The G1000 Groningen Put in         Perspective.” MA thesis history, migration and global interdependence. Leiden: Leiden         University, 2016.

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Wagenbuur, Mark.  2016. “Groningen: Cycling City of the Netherlands?” Bicycle Dutch, March         8.  Accessed 4 November 2017.  https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/            groningen-cycling-city-of-the-netherlands/


The Traffic Circulation Plan: Elements, Implementation, Effects.

This is part two in a three-part series on the history of the Traffic Circulation Plan (TCP) in Groningen, Netherlands. Part one is here, and part three is here. The content was originally an assignment for History & Theory of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a master’s candidate in the College of Urban Planning and Policy.  I’d like to thank Lennart Nout and Chris Brundlett at Modacity for their input and resource-sharing.  I’d also like to thank Vincent Ziols who also contributed to the paper.

The main objective of the TCP was to create barriers for cars in order to block access to the inner city streets. This would substantially increase the right-of-way for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders while minimizing safety conflicts with automobiles.  The TCP would effectively divide the city into four sections, and, along with the rerouting of city streets, prohibit automobiles to cross over between sections. Cars would be limited to few access points into the city, but would be offered an expanded road way that encircled the outer neighborhoods of the city. Figure 1 illustrates the evolution of the ‘ring-road’ network, which was intended to mitigate the traffic created by the block of access through the city center. 

   Arterial road structure for car traffic, approx. 1964, 1980 and 2000. Image courtesy of    CROW Fietsberaad.

Arterial road structure for car traffic, approx. 1964, 1980 and 2000. Image courtesy of CROW Fietsberaad.

Upon the council adoption of the TCP in September 1977, Van Den Berg and city staff were ready to move forward with implementing the plan. On the night of September 19th all 5,000 steps of the TCP were implemented; such a strategy may have arisen out of the need to thoroughly execute the plan, if not to mitigate conflict or opposition. City staff presented flyers and flowers to confused commuters who could no longer cross through the center of the city. After the initial implementation, new bicycle paths were created, trees were planted in now open streets and other development measures of the TCP took place which helped to bolster the effects of the new network system.

  A city official distributes flyers and flowers to motorists, September 1977.  Image Courtesy of Groningen ImageBank.

A city official distributes flyers and flowers to motorists, September 1977.  Image Courtesy of Groningen ImageBank.

  Overnight implementation resulting in a substantial neck-down of motorized traffic.  Image courtesy of Pellenbarg, 2003.

Overnight implementation resulting in a substantial neck-down of motorized traffic.  Image courtesy of Pellenbarg, 2003.

According to the PvdA the TCP and its implementation were largely supported by residents, especially among voting district members. Van Den Berg remarked in a recent article that residents living downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods were “enthusiastic about our ideas”, as “[t]hey saw we were changing things on a great scale.” 

Although many businesses in the central city were vehemently opposed to the TCP, a number of cooperative efforts were conducted in order to facilitate the plan’s rollout, such as participating in a municipal guiding committee and distributing maps to customers. However, after the near-instantaneous application of the TCP, shopkeepers began to organize and rekindle their opposition to the plan. A local newspaper published an open letter written by the “Group of Duped Businesspeople” to the PvdA which stated that “because of the lack of participation by true experts…this Plan not only works poorly, but also seriously undermines the employment and viability of our city.” 

  Business owners react to the TCP rollout.    Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Business owners react to the TCP rollout.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Reports were produced indicating a loss of business, and proposals to modify the TCP were submitted. Additionally, central city businesses submitted a suspension request with the Council of State which included proposals to revert elements of the TCP-affected streets back to their previous condition. The council overruled the suspension request, stating that the shopkeepers did not provide sufficient evidence of a decrease in sales.

Citizen Participation:  inspraak or participatie?

Van Den Berg was one of many young PvdA members who initially advocated for improved accessibility, transparency, and responsiveness between citizens and municipal administrators. He once proposed the creation of neighborhood councils and the appointment of city officials to assist citizens through municipal policies and practices. Despite such participatory concepts being espoused by Van Den Berg and other PvdA members, there is little evidence to support the notion that citizens were actually involved in either the creation or implementation of traffic policy reforms.

Shinji Tsubohara and Gijs Van Maanen distinguish between the use of the words inspraak and participatie in PvdA plans. Inspraak is used to denote situations where citizens are merely asked to provide input on a specific topic, whereas participatie describes the citizen as actively involved and integral to the decision-making process. The PvdA’s 1982 Residential Traffic Plan gives further application on the concepts; Inspraak occurs through a series of public hearings and written submissions on the plan, while participatie can happen as the plan is developed in the context of one’s specific neighborhood. Although these concepts appear to align with the objectives of the PvdA in general and its younger members in particular, they become arguably inconvenient or irrelevant to Van Den Berg through the development and implementation of the TCP.  

  Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation.  Courtesy of Arnstein, 1969.

Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation.  Courtesy of Arnstein, 1969.

Shinji Tsubohara places the PvdA’s citizen participation efforts within the ‘tokenism’ rungs of Arnstein’s ladder. The mandated public hearings scheduled with little time for plan review could be construed as ‘informing’, a one-way attempt to disseminate plan content with little opportunity for citizens to contribute. Inspraak aligns with Arnstein’s concept of ‘consultation’; although the opportunity to give input may exist, the likelihood that such input will be considered or acted upon is minimal.  

Given the strong opposition of the central city shopkeepers and the advent of such concepts as communicative planning, the prospects of implementing a large-scale plan like the TCP today is unlikely.