Curbing Traffic: a quiet city where cars are controlled is possible

Cover of _Curbing Traffic_ by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett.

Curbing Traffic
by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett
Island Press, 2021
reviewed by Alayne McGregor

If one thing would make me want to live in the Netherlands, it’s the quiet its cities achieve by limiting car access.

As Melissa and Chris Bruntlett describe it in their book Curbing Traffic, exiting the train station in their adopted city of Delft is like “walking into a wall of silence. Not the deafening kind, but the kind for which many seek to escape the city. He could hear blackbirds singing their night song, the stream of bicycles slowly pedaling by, and the soft chatter of people at a nearby patio.”

They had a very different experience visiting other European countries: “when rolling our suitcases out of St. Pancras, Gare du Nord, and Zurich Central, we were immediately greeted by a wall of noise: engines bellowing in their race to the next traffic light, horns honking in frustration at the abundance of (other) cars, and sirens wailing in pursuit to clean up after the latest crash. This relentless, seemingly unavoidable din had served as a background noise to our lives in Vancouver.” After the quiet of Dutch cities, the noise left them feeling “anxious and distressed.”

While Delft still has noise from garbage trucks, construction, motorized scooters, and leaf blowers, they say, its relative lack of car noise leaves them with “an immense feeling of calm and relaxation.”

Traffic noise is generated from both rolling noise (tire friction on roads or vehicles banging over potholes or ironworks), and propulsion noise (from a vehicle’s engine, exhaust, transmission, and brakes). Rolling noise becomes the greatest source of noise at speeds of 55 km/hour or greater (or 45 km/h for heavy trucks) – which means that e-vehicles are not silent. On top of that are car horns and car alarms.

Laws restricting noise and car access

In 1979, the book recounts, the Netherlands passed legislation restricting traffic noise along most streets, prescribing maximum decibel levels within nearby buildings, depending on their usage and time of day. Towns like Delft had two choices: either push buildings back from the street, which was a non-starter given the city’s dense urban form, or reduce the volume and speed of car traffic and stop widening roads within built-up areas.

Delft already had traffic and cycling plans that pushed cars out of neighbourhoods except for immediate access to homes or businesses, and made cycling, walking, and transit trips much more direct than car trips. Roads were designed so that car trips were immediately pushed to an outer ring road.

Using those plans, the city worked to reduce car trips as a first priority, with noise barriers as a last resort.

It also redeveloped its central viaduct leading to the rail station into a tunnel, and replaced that with a two-lane, traffic calmed road with a tramway, canal, landscaping, space for walking, cycling, and seating and dining – and new housing. The book says traffic on that road seldom exceeds 20 km/h, making it much quieter.

The result, the book says, is that you can hear children singing, church bells, and bike squeaks instead of cars as you leave the station. The same happens in the Bruntletts’ own neighbourhood, where they can open the French doors on their terrace and welcome pleasant city noises in, such as church bells and even outdoor chamber music concerts.

The Bruntletts moved with their 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter from Vancouver to Delft in February 2019. They had been living a car-light lifestyle in the dense neighbourhood of East Vancouver, but found living without a car altogether easier in their new city. In this book, they describe how Dutch cities control and channel car usage, and the benefits of that control – and what they experienced because of that.

What the Bruntletts found in Delft

  • With Delft having true 15-minute neighbourhoods, they could easily buy food more frequently in smaller amounts, often choosing their dinner menu as they walked to the shops after arriving home;
  • Their children could – and were expected to – be much more independent on their bikes, freeing their parents from constant chauffeur duty and oversight and allowing them more time as a couple. This also reduced Melissa’s workload as a mother;
  • Everything was set up so they could easily combine cycling and public transport to get around, and only needed a car to return a piece of furniture to IKEA;
  • The reduction in traffic volume and speed in residential neighbourhoods encouraged more neighbourliness and social trust, which Melissa particularly appreciated when she locked herself out of their apartment and neighbours stepped in to help her find a locksmith;
  • Seniors have a better chance to age in place and keep active on quiet streets;
  • Low-income workers can more easily access a greater variety of workplaces, instead of being forced to own a car to get to work;
  • Disabled people have more options, including human-operated, to get around;
  • Greenspace replaced road space, increasing resilience to climate change

The book is the Bruntletts’ paean to their adopted country and city. It’s not so much a pro-bike book – although cycling is repeatedly referenced as one solution – but rather an examination of what society loses if we rely too much on the car. I found particularly interesting that it talks about many other solutions beyond bike lanes, including shared roads and woonerfs, and emphasizes speed reduction and car access reductions over cycle tracks. Their definition of a protected intersection is different from Ottawa’s, too.

In some places, I thought it praised the Netherlands over-much, particularly when it talked about how cycling allows one to experience a more diverse racial society. Given the recent success of a far-right, anti-immigrant party in that country, I suspect the book is being too sanguine.

Nevertheless, this book offers a new way of thinking about traffic and a vision of a city that can work without constant traffic. Now, if we could just fix OC Transpo…

This book will be discussed at the March 26 meeting of the Ottawa Urbanism Book Club at McNabb Recreation Centre, 180 Percy St., from 6:15 to 7:45 p.m.

There will also be an online author Q&A with the Bruntletts on March 25 at 12 noon.
More info: derricksimpson15 at

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