Is Brussels about to become a liveable city? / by Kwinten Lambrecht

source: AmCham Belgium

source: AmCham Belgium

The American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium asked me to write an op-ed about urban mobility in Brussels for their newsletter/website. You can find the entire text below.

Brussels is a typical example of a car city that was built to meet drivers’ demands rather than to fulfill the criteria of a city that takes care of its citizens.

A weekend trip to the seaside, shopping or bringing your kids to school – our motorized friend appears as a most loyal machine that is able to bring us anywhere. As a result, many European cities were built taking into account the comfort of driving a car in the city: wide streets, central lanes and sometimes even highways were constructed. Brussels is a typical example of a car city that was built to meet drivers’ demands rather than to take care of its citizens.

BINARY CONGESTION

A recent study by Agoria, the Belgian technology industry association, highlights that nine out of 10 people who work in Brussels need 25% more time to reach their destination today than in 2012. Brussels is getting clogged with cars. The fault lies not with the car commuters but rather a miscalculation by consecutive governments which supported and encouraged car use, financially as well as infrastructure-wise. The lack of alternatives, such as protected cycle lanes and car-sharing schemes as well as cuts in public transportation funding, makes it impossible to change this extremely dangerous situation.

Dangerous for companies because they're losing both time and efficiency, but also for Brussels' citizens. Air pollution accounts for thousands of premature deaths in Europe. In Brussels, concentrations of black carbon on large streets are usually 20 times higher than on car-free Sundays. Additionally, noise pollution also puts lives in danger due to higher stress levels.

THE HUMAN SCALE

(Re)designing a city on 'the human scale', as famous architect and urban designer Jan Gehl calls it, is a difficult task which requires brave and visionary politicians, responsible citizens and smart companies. The freshly elected Brussels-Capital Regional Government is pointing heads in the right direction with investments in cycle lanes, more public transportation and plans for 10,000 commuter parking spots around Brussels.

The main problem, however, is the municipalities (the Brussels-Capital Region counts 19), which are still powerful and often block smart decisions. Projects such as constructing new tram lines, organizing additional car-free squares or even creating cycle lanes can all be blocked or delayed by mayors that refuse to adopt a holistic approach when tackling mobility issues. For example, plans to build five new parking lots in the city center are completely counterproductive when you are developing a scheme that connects commuter parking sites to public transportation.

Gradually, many Bruxellois and I hope that we will enter the liveable city era, where the human being is at the center of attention. We need to move forward, raise citizens’ awareness on the health, social and financial costs of a 'car city' and at the same time continue to drive politicians in an alternative direction. Companies can play a big role as well, by offering a mobility budget instead of over-subsidised company cars (in Belgium €2763 per car per year) or by adopting greener behavior such as buying electric bikes and perhaps fishing where the fish are: on the Brussels labor market.