White Elephant Or Red Herring?

Bruno Vijverman profiles Amsterdam’s Witkar.

The Witkar. Image: Hart Amsterdam.nl

The late sixties and early seventies: it seemed as if Amsterdam and this era were made for each other. Expansion of the mind by means of a wide range of stimulants, breaching of the traditional sexual mores, and challenging the establishment in general – all against a background of a nasty conflict in Southeast Asia and a looming end by atomic bomb.

The summer of love might have faded since its heyday in Haight-Ashbury but its spirit was still very much alive in the Dutch capital. However, like any other reasonably sized city that attracted new residents, new businesses and more tourism every year, Amsterdam could not escape the fact that its city centre was getting very congested indeed.

Its charming infrastructure with narrow roads running along the many canals joined by old and equally narrow bridges was becoming increasingly incompatible with the growth of motorised traffic. Apart from the clouds of cannabis smoke, exhaust gases created an unpleasant atmospheric disturbance and an ever thickening layer of soot tarnished the city’s historic facades.

Amsterdam city council member Luud Schimmelpennink had proposed his so-called witte fietsenplan (white bicycle plan) in 1967 which would see two thousand bicycles spread over the capital’s centre, free for anyone to use as they pleased instead of car or motorcycle. The aim of course was to reduce the amount of motorised vehicles to reduce air pollution and congestion, but the somewhat naive proposal was nixed by the council since without any means of registration and control there was nothing to stop people from keeping the white bicycles for themselves.

The council did however appreciate his efforts and in subsequent meetings Schimmelpennink came up with the idea of the electric Witkar, which would become one of the world’s first carsharing ventures, and arguably the first that actually got off the ground – although it would fail in the end.

Image: Groen7 nl/ Youtube

The prototype of the Witkar, with its inventor behind the wheel, made its first appearance on the Dutch capital’s streets on the 24th of may, 1968. Since the new and unusual vehicle was not deemed road legal in its initial form, Schimmelpennink performed some modifications and improvements after which it was agreed that the Witkar could be driven on public roads – but only by those with a drivers license.

The two-seat Witkar was certainly not easily overlooked in traffic; driver and passenger were seated in a tall circular tube that offered excellent visibility in every direction. Driven by a 24 volt, 2000 Watt electric engine the 450kg heavy Witkar had a top speed of only 19 Mph and a range of just over 9 miles (which came down to about thirty minutes of driving), both marginal even in city traffic and among the reasons for the project’s ultimate demise.

Those who wanted to make use of the Witkar had to become a member of the Witkar cooperative company for a lifetime fee of 25 Dutch guilders. Members also needed to purchase a special electronic key (without which one could not operate a Witkar or access its registration system) for which they had to pay 20 guilders every year; the tariff was set at 1 guilder for every 3 miles travelled and that fee would be automatically deducted upon completion of the journey by means of direct debit from the member’s bank account.

Even before the Witkar system became operational, over one thousand people had already become a member so the initial signs were promising.

A Witkar station in 1974 (top) and 1982 (bottom). Image: Chris Westra/ Henk Graalman

On the 21st of march 1974, Irene Vorrink, then minister of Public health and the environment, officially opened the Witkar system. There were just four Witkar stations, soon followed by a fifth (their names were Amstelveld, Elandsgracht, Nieuwmarkt, Oude Brugsteeg and Spui); twenty-five Witkars were available for use and the amount of Witkar members had grown to around 2500 at the time of its debut.

BBC’s William Woollard of Tomorrow’s world was present as well and did a feature on the new carsharing system. The first ten Witkars were built by Cock in Assen (stop sniggering in the back), while the second batch was made by Spijkstaal based in Spijkenisse near Rotterdam; they differed in several details but utilised the same basic technology. In total 38 vehicles were produced.

The procedure for using a Witkar was as follows: you inserted your personal electronic key in the slot provided at a telephone-booth like device next to the line of parked Witkars. Then you dialled the number of the Witkar station you wanted to travel to; the central computer at Witkar’s office had in the meantime recognised your inserted key and checked your data. When given the green light, you took out your key with which you could now gain access to the Witkar at the front of the line.

Upon entering you inserted the key into the dedicated slot in the dashboard – the Witkar would unlock from its charging rail and you were ready to go to your destination. Upon arrival you parked your Witkar at the end of the line, and it would automatically re-connect to the charging rail above readying itself for the next user. Witkar claimed the car charged itself to 80% capacity in ten minutes.

Studies carried out by the Amsterdam city council showed that with twenty Witkar stations in operation, a ten percent reduction in inner city passenger traffic would result, as well as a seventeen percent reduction in occupied parking spaces.

A further ten stations were scheduled to be operational by the end of 1976, with a fleet of 100 Witkars, and the ultimate goal was 150 stations and 1000 vehicles. But no expansion would ever materialise. Part of the reason were problems with the Witkar system itself – the computer system did not always work as it should, and the fact that a Witkar could only travel from station to station limited its usefulness, especially with only five stations available.

On top of that it transpired that Witkar travel was generally in one direction which meant that some stations were always full while others were often empty.

The witkar in 1974 with Luud Schimmelpennink, and in its final days just before the end of the venture. Image: Alex Zuidema/ Hans Bodewers

Improved computers, a larger range and more stations spread over Amsterdam could have increased Witkars chances of survival, but reportedly the city of Amsterdam was not helpful at all when it concerned issuing permits for new Witkar stations which left Schimmelpennink frustrated: “Witkar failed because we got only five and not the required fifteen stations we needed to spread availability across the whole city. We never really had a chance to prove its worth.

Nevertheless, Witkar and its five stations continued to operate until the Autumn of 1986. On the 27th of October the Witkar cooperative company cancelled its activities and within three days the distinctive white mobile pods had disappeared from Amsterdam’s city centre.

So, that was that. A flop? Well- in some respects yes, but Witkar did operate for well over a decade and by the mid eighties had over 4500 paying members which proves that there was certainly demand for a service such as this. With more stations and vehicles, improved range and performance and the reliability issues of the computer reservation system fixed, things may have developed along a very different trajectory and the Witkars might be a common sight today in Amsterdam and perhaps other cities as well.

These days, there are several carsharing initiatives in many countries although these operate on a very different free-floating system. Even Witkar still exists as a Dutch carsharing company although it has nothing to do anymore with its namesake inventor. In 2017, Luud Schimmelpennink who remained active in the Amsterdam municipal council until well into his seventies received the Frans Banninck Cocq medal from the alderman of transportation in Amsterdam for his services.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

12 thoughts on “White Elephant Or Red Herring?”

  1. Thanks for posting, Bruno. I’ve known about the witkar for a very long time. The weird thing is, I have no recollection of ever seeing one, even though I’ve been to Amsterdam on a number of occassions when they were still in use. These either failed to leave an impression or they were all at the other stations.

    These days I avoid Amsterdam altogether and in case I really have to be there I’ll take public transport, which is, for me at least, a better solution to the issue of transportation in busy city centers.

  2. A fascinating story of which I was (shamefully, given my location) unaware. In a weird sort of way, Amsterdam has gained a modern successor to the Witkar in the popular little ‘Birò’ electric vehicles, though these are all privately owned as far as I am aware.

    1. There is a witkar in the Amsterdam Museum, apparently.

  3. Good morning, Bruno. I know Amsterdam very well* but was completely unaware of this piece of its recent history, so thank you for bringing it to us. What a shame the system wasn’t a success, as it seems eminently well suited to the city, especially the Centrum area.

    Your piece for some reason reminded me of this YouTube clip, a stunt from some action movie, I believe:

    Obviously staged, but do I recall an incident where some inebriated visitors to the city picked up a parked Smart Car and dropped it into a canal for a ‘prank’ (or am I just imagining that?)

    * Living where we do, it’s an easier and often less stressful journey to get to the Dutch capital than to our own!

    1. Right, today such a service would need to use an already certified vehicle. Sadly, the Twizy earned only 2 stars on the NCAP test for quadracycles. The Smart Fortwo (4 stars, not a quadracycle) is having an abysmal year sales-wise; just a thought.

      Since 2013 there has been a bicycle sharing program in NYC called Citi Bike which operates similarly to Witkar.

    2. As far as I know, even in this over-regulated EU, no registrations (certified, NCAP or whatever) are required for a vehicle with a maximum speed of 25 km/h.

  4. Bruno, you’ve introduced yet another unknown idea with the Witkar to me, thank you. Sadly, yet another premise that was perhaps a little too far ahead in its thinking for the time, but full marks to
    Luud Schimmelpennink for at least trying and trying hard.

    Within the last ten years, my home city of Sheffield attempted a bicycle plan similar to what’s mentioned above. Having never been to Amsterdam, I do know it’s pretty flat – Sheffield is most definitely not making journeys a breeze one way and red, puffing cheeks and aching legs, the other. And rather inevitably, most if not all the bikes got stolen, wrecked or dumped, leaving the councillors more red faced than the cyclists.

  5. At the risk of engaging in crude stereotyping, in my experience the citizens of Amsterdam are delightful people, friendly, urbane, interesting and interested…until they mount a bicycle, when they (well, some of them at least) become homicidal maniacs!

    Apologies in advance to our lovely Dutch readers!

    1. I believe England knew the concept of the divine right of Kings. A similar principle seems to operate in the minds of cyclists here as regards traffic lights, rules, other users of the road… 😉

    2. Phew, it’s not just my imagination then!

      Crossing the main road in front of Amsterdam Centraal train station is terrifying. Even when the lights are with you, the bicycles never stop!

    3. No apologies needed Daniel- (too) many Dutch cyclists (or at least cyclists on Dutch roads) behave like they are invincible 🙂

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