In one of Europe's most car-dependent cities, lockdown offers a chance to rethink the road

Before the coronavirus, traffic jams were a staple of Brussels' streets. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Before March 14 of this year, Brussels had well and truly reached peak car.

Pre-coronavirus lockdown, Brussels drivers spent an average of 7 days and 6 hours each year in traffic. But emergency measures brought a 42% decrease in motorized traffic, and with that came a chance for inhabitants and policymakers alike to discover the joys of cycling. It’s a story playing out on streets around the world, but it carries special significance in an unusually car-dependent European capital.

“Brussels is the capital of Belgium and Europe, yet it lags behind when it comes to mobility,” says mobility expert and author Kris Peeters. “This has been changing in recent years, largely due to pressure from civilian movements and the example set by other cities. Progress in Paris certainly influenced the French-speaking part of Brussels to step up its mobility ambitions.”


There are a few reasons why change has been slow. Under the Belgian tax system, handing out a company car is more attractive than giving a pay rise. A lack of funding for national railway service SNCB-NMBS means train transport to Brussels is often hindered by strikes. And so many Belgians, who generally prefer to live in suburbia, undertake a daily commute by company car to offices in Brussels. Those who do cycle in the capital must brave loose cobblestones and half-finished bike lanes.

The coronavirus crisis has sped up the timeline for change. Since the emergency measures went into effect, 16 Brussels municipalities have installed low-traffic zones to increase the safety and comfort of cyclists. Parking has been removed to create more road space, while speed limits on busy avenues have been lowered to 30 km/h (18 mph). To allow for social-distance walks, cars have been banned from several parks and forests, including Laeken Park and Bois de la Cambre.

“25% of journeys undertaken in Brussels are less than a kilometre, two-thirds are less than five kilometres. If we encourage journeys on foot and by bicycle, it can only be positive,” Brussels Minister of Mobility Elke Van den Brandt told local newspaper Bruzz. As the city starts moving again, Van den Brandt has decided to install 40 km of new cycling paths, most of them permanent.

Among these newly bike-friendly streets is Rue de la Loi, a congestion hotspot lined with Belgian and EU governmental buildings. Reassigning one of those car lanes for cyclists marks an important symbolic change, Peeters says.

“These kinds of choices require either political courage or opportunity. The crisis presented such an opportunity,” he says. “However, politicians don’t have to wait for exceptional circumstances to make space for pedestrians and cyclists. The ‘build it and they will come’ mechanism has been proven many times over when it comes to bike use.”


Brussels offered free use of its bikeshare program during lockdown. (Selma Franssen)

To further encourage cycling, the Brussels municipality of Uccle has extended a €250 bonus to residents who purchase an electric bike. Brussels Mobility has also launched a poster campaign #BlijvenTrappen (“keep pedaling”) and temporarily offered free use of shared bicycles from the city’s Villo scheme, resulting in 7,000 new subscribers.

In the short run, biking in Brussels seems to be taking off. Bicycle shops sell faster than they can replenish their stocks. Bike shop Velofixer noted a fourfold increase in bike sales in the weeks after lockdown orders went into effect. And Swapfiets, a company that rents out bicycles for €17.50 ($20) a month, went from 1,500 to 2,500 customers in two months. In a survey among 3,130 respondents, nearly half of public transport users indicated that they plan to make more journeys by bicycle after the lockdown.

But perhaps a survey conducted in summer paints too sunny a picture. Will the people of Brussels flock back to their cars come autumn? Peeters says a lot depends on how public transport providers respond to the current challenges.

“Taking public transport and traveling by airplane pose similar health risks, yet the responses of airline companies and public transport companies couldn’t be more different,” he says. “Airline companies demand to be seen as a necessity and proactively look for ways to continue to exist. Public transport services should adopt a similar attitude, emphasizing their social value, so they won’t be downgraded to ‘transport for those who have no other choice’,” as Belgian prime minster Sophie Wilmès referred to public transport in a press conference of the National Security Council about Covid-19 measures on 6 May.

In any case, Brussels can’t handle more cars, Peeters says. Between 19 March and 3 May, a 75% drop in carbon monoxide was measured in Brussels and road traffic decreased by 90%, in comparison to data from the past 10 years. But as Belgium and Europe take steps toward reopening, car traffic is picking back up.


The Grand Place was used as a parking lot until 1971. (Selma Franssen)

“Before the crisis, the city was gridlocked multiple times a day, leading to dangerous levels of air pollution. Even now that there are fewer cars on the road, air pollution levels are still too high,” he says. “With droughts and climate change looming, the city will have to be more ambitious.”  

Today it’s unimaginable to citizens and tourists alike that up until 1971, Brussels’ landmark the Grand Place was used as a parking lot. Perhaps equally, in a few years’ time, we won’t believe that motorways used to cut through the city parks.

Selma Franssen is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.