Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Opinion

Brussels: From a city for cars to a city for people

  • Brussels' De Bouckere square after it was closed to traffic in June 2015. (Photo: Miguel Discart)

There were three open letters in the past couple of weeks by residents of Brussels saying enough is enough, that things aren’t going well, asking why one would wish to continue living in this city. 

First, a group of doctors and health organisations rightly expressed their concerns about poor air quality.

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Second came expat Gareth Harding, who [in an EUobserver article] is irritated by the longstanding and messy building sites in Brussels - a disgrace to a city that refers to itself as the capital of Europe.

Third, Celia Ledoux, a writer and a big fan of the city for many years, has fallen out of love with it, because too many promises remain unfulfilled.

All three letters should be taken seriously, because they are written by people who are not the moaning type. On the contrary, these are people who are genuinely concerned about Brussels and who mean well. 

Cars ruled the roads

People are right in saying it's not utopian to want clean air, beautiful squares, safe streets, and more green areas. People are also frustrated because they have the feeling that Brussels is a city with (too) many politicians, few of whom actually take responsibility. 

It is clear that a city with a regional government, 19 communes, in a federal country such as Belgium, is a priori complex.

But Brussels also suffers from the fact that cars, for many decades, have ruled the roads. There are hellish traffic jams everyday, congested tunnels, and bad air.   

But allow me to be optimistic. As a politician in this city it is my moral duty. Bear with me before calling me naive. I am noticing change, something new is happening. 

There is a new generation of Bruxellois - including those who have written these letters - people with a heart for the city who want to make it a better place, more enjoyable for its residents. They want more space for cyclists, parks, pedestrian zones, and safe play areas for their kids.

They are right.

A number of basic issues must be tackled elsewhere, such as: federal subsidies for the company cars used by the 250,000 people who enter and leave the city every day, most of them driving in on their own; a tax regime that stimulates living in rural areas; or tackling the cuts in public transport just outside Brussels.

New public areas

But we shouldn’t hide and point the finger. There is much to do at the local level as well. Concrete cancers that divide neighbourhoods and give priority to cars must disappear. 

Recent actions such as demolishing the Reyers viaduct and making parts of the city centre car-free are, as far as I'm concerned, just the starting point of a broader move which is aimed at giving the city back to its people. 

The aim should be to invest in new public areas. Other projects are in the pipeline: there will be new a park at the Porte de Ninove, another one near Tour & Taxis, and pedestrian squares in Jette and Woluwe-Saint-Pierre.

But we have more ambitious goals: in the next 10 years  we will invest more than €5 billion in extra subways, more tramlines and eco-friendly buses that will provide a better service. 

From next year on, families will also benefit from a reduction on their children’s season tickets, as an incentive to use public transport. 

Very soon Gareth Harding will receive an invitation for the opening of the refurbished Schuman and Arts-Loi metro stations, because these projects have been speeded up and are now close to being (finally) concluded.

'I hope Gareth will be proud'

Furthermore, we will provide for some extra 80 (!) kilometers of new cycling lanes, including around the inner city ring where parking will have to give way to new space for trees, cyclists, and pedestrians. 

And, last but not least, this government aims to come up with an ambitious green taxing system by next year. These are not vague promises, but real projects that will materialise in the years to come.

We have started to move in the direction of a new, attractive and more enjoyable Brussels and I truly believe that we will continue to make things better.  

I hope that Celia will fall in love with Brussels again, that Gareth can be proud of his host city, and that we can let our children play outdoors without having to be worried. 

As the Danish architect Jan Gehl so clearly said: We should go from a city for cars to a city for people.

Pascal Smet is minister for mobility and public work in the Brussels-Capital regional government

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