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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.