Amsterdam municipal plan for total control over private vehicles does not fit into a free society — and will not work

It’s not a scene from a futuristic movie, but a plan from Amsterdam’s city hall. You approach a school, a park, a busy intersection or bike path on your bike, and as you try to move forward, you notice that remotely your bike’s speed is reduced to 15 km/h. This total control over private vehicles would be “a welcome tool” to make the city a bit safer again, according to Amsterdam’s D66 alderman for transport, Melanie van der Horst. After all, according to figures from 2022, half of all traffic victims in Amsterdam were cyclists, and one in 10 of the bike victims was on an electric bike.

Asked about the ethical considerations for finding it a good idea for the government to direct people’s physical movement through public space by controlling their private property, the alderman—who earlier in newspaper NRC called it a welcome tool—on LinkedIn indicated that she was “not at all at the point yet” “to find this technology a good or bad idea“. This creates the picture that while the municipality does put community money into technical development, ethical considerations and frameworks will soon be a final word, instead of technical development taking place on the basis of what society finds acceptable. This while remotely monitoring and controlling citizens’ private vehicles with which they move through public spaces is unprecedented and, especially given the advent of autonomous vehicles, possibly a first step on a slippery slope where, in the future, not only determining the speed but also the possible destinations, routes and number of transport movements will be in line, an ever-increasing encroachment on people’s private lives and autonomy and not appropriate in a free society.

At the same time, Amsterdam does indeed have a traffic problem. But contrary to what the municipality’s futuristic plan for total control over means of transport suggests, namely that this problem is caused by citizens cycling too fast, the government itself is responsible for creating it. Despite Amsterdam being overcrowded, the municipality continues to present plans to add housing by ‘densifying‘, putting even more people in a smaller area. Moreover, because the municipality structurally discourages transport by car, wants to use less public transport in the city centre and pays too little attention to the opportunities for pedestrians, citizens are pushed onto bicycles. Thus, the municipality itself ensures that the number of cyclists and bicycle movements continues to increase, that it becomes busier on cycle paths, and that more accidents occur as a result.

An additional problem is the increase in (the differences between) the speed of different types of ‘bicycles’. In 2002, a bicycle was still going 12 kilometres per hour on average; with 15 gears, the average speed has gone to 17 kilometres per hour. And while electric bikes, on Dutch cycle paths since the 1990s, were meant to make cycling easier for people with mobility problems, they now accelerate the bike to 25 kilometres per hour by default and switch to 32 kilometres at the push of a button. Nowadays they are also available as electric cargo bikes, five times wider than a regular bike and therefore five times more likely to crash into someone. Prefer even faster through Amsterdam’s busy city centre for the ‘Verstappen feeling’? Then you can ask your neighbour’s boy or girl to rev up your Fatbike to 60 kilometres per hour, which has thus become an e-scooter without a licence plate or third-party insurance, with riders under 16 without a driving licence or helmet, and going faster than cars that are still only allowed to go 30 kilometres per hour in Amsterdam.

The continued addition of housing in a city that is already saturated, combined with local policies that practically force residents to use bicycles and the nationwide uncontrolled permitting of various types of ‘bicycles’ that are unsuitable for the bike lane, logically leads to an increase in traffic unsafety and accidents. While there is much to be said for reducing the speed of bicycles to 16 kilometres per hour, this does not require taking over control of private vehicles remotely with Orwellian technologies that restrict citizens’ freedom of movement, for instance by simply not allowing those ‘bicycles’ onto the road in cities with minimal speed gains and maximum traffic unsafety.

Instead of unfairly shifting responsibility for policy-induced problems to citizens, it would be better if municipal and national governments look into their own pockets and review their own policies. Especially since remotely regulating the speed of speeding cyclists is not going to work at all. Their neighbour’s boy or girl, who are now revving up their Fatbike, will soon switch off the Amsterdam municipality’s Cycling Control system with the same ease. The only remaining 15-kilometre-per-hour cyclists? Those are the citizens who are already following the rules nicely even now.

This article appeared today in NRC Handelsblad.

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