The research, ‘Mind the Gap: A comparative study of low-car policy acceptance’ by Anastasia Roukouni and Oded Cats, is available here.

Amsterdam aspires to be a low-car city where transport options shift from private car ownership to more sustainable models such as biking, public transport, and shared transport. Research has consistently found that cities with fewer cars benefit from less air pollution, congestion, noise, and visual pollution. However, in practice introducing or even considering low-car interventions can spark heated debate among residents and between local authorities and residents.

The Netherlands is often lauded as a bright example of a cycling-first country; however, 42% of all trips are still made by car (CBS, 2022). In its move to become a low-car city, the City of Amsterdam introduced the ‘Amsterdam Agenda Autoluw [Amsterdam low-traffic agenda].’ This notes that low-car does not imply banning all car traffic from the city, but rather a careful and gradual reduction of car traffic while ensuring that other means of transport guarantee accessibility for residents—including cars for those that need them.

However, introducing or considering low-car interventions is not always clear-cut. Public support and engagement in urban transport planning processes is important and can even 'make or break' the success and longevity of transport policies.

Using Amsterdam as a case study, the researchers investigated 400 residents' and stakeholders' views towards different types of low-car city interventions. They compiled a list of 28 low-car measures and identified the most and least favorable measures.

Summary of findings

Overall, Amsterdammers are positive about most low-car measures and policies. 16 out of 28 proposed low-car measures have a majority of residents in favor, indicating net support (see the visual below). What is also striking, however, is that there are widely differing opinions among Amsterdam residents when it comes to reducing car use. The top three most polarizing measures are shown in the second visual. These include restrictions that focus on vehicle weight, reducing parking spaces and park and ride fees, and restricting residents' access to their cars.

“The diversity in answers suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to promoting low-car environments might not be effective.”

Lead author Anastasia Roukouni

Policymakers need to pay specific attention to measures that can cause strong support or disapproval, engage in bi-directional communications and public affairs, and consider potential amendments to their plans to win the public's long-term support. Notably, many of the policies are already supported and can likely be implemented with little controversy.

The findings in detail: 

Residents are in favor of many of the potential low-car measures

Of the 28 measures compared in the study, some were more established and are already active in cities, such as congestion charging and low emissions zones. At the same time, others were more pioneering, such as ones using gamification (Tradeable Mobility Credits, for example). The participants ranked their support for the 28 measures, as portrayed in visual below. The results show that of the 400 residents:

  • 39% are low-car policy supporters,
  • 35% have a mixed attitude towards low-car policy,
  • 27% are low-car policy skeptics.

There is some polarization among residents on which measures should be implemented

'Polarization' in this context means that there are strong opinions both in favor and against a specific measure. A measure that would get 50% full support and 50% absolutely against would get a perfect polarization score of 300. A measure that everyone would feel the same about (either neutral, in favor or against, would get a polarization score of 0. As shown in visual below, the top three most polarizing measures are restrictions based on vehicle weight, reduction of parking spaces and park and ride fees, and limiting access to residents’ cars.

What does this research mean for cities? 

Cities around the world recognize the undeniable benefits of limiting car traffic for people and the planet. This research shows that in Amsterdam, low-car measures spark passionate responses in people, meaning policy deployment may face challenges. The researchers made a selection of recommendations for Amsterdam and other cities to work towards a smooth roll-out of low-car measures:

Enhanced communication strategies:

  • Transparent communication: City officials could improve communication efforts before implementing any measures, ensuring the objectives and expected benefits (e.g., livability, health, and safety impacts) are clearly explained to the public.
  • Targeted information campaigns: Tailor-made strategies could be developed to address the preferences and concerns of different demographic groups (for example, based on the profiles of low-car supporters or skeptics), using varied communication channels and approaches.

    Incremental implementation of low-car measures:
  • Gradual approach: Low-car policies could be implemented gradually to gauge public sentiment and reduce resistance. This would allow residents and policymakers to gain experience with the impacts of various measures. Incremental steps rather than radical changes, for example.
  • Stakeholder engagement: Further research could explore stakeholders' perceptions to determine if they find low-car scenarios undesirable or unattainable and adapt policies accordingly.

    Before-after studies: A useful approach could be examining the impact of low-car measures through before-after studies to assess changes in public perception and measure the effectiveness of implemented policies.

By adopting these recommendations, policymakers could foster greater acceptance, accommodate residents' concerns, and enable smoother implementation of low-car measures, ultimately enhancing urban livability and sustainability.