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Back to the Future

Pascal Smet,

Minister of Mobility of the Brussels Capital Region

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21 September 2018

Opinion

In the 1950s and 1960s, urban planners designed cities around cars. Brussels is a sad example of this: a beautiful city, torn by motorways cutting through neighborhoods. Belgium’s taxation policy over the last couple of decades has made the situation a whole lot worse. It is now more beneficial to live outside a city where taxes are lower, particularly if your employer provides a company car as a perk. Many employees are even issued with a fuel card, which makes the cost of travelling by car negligible. The result for Brussels is that of the 350,000 commuters coming into and leaving the city every day, half of them do so by car and often they are the sole occupant of that car.

The solutions are clear. Firstly, tax policy needs to promote living and working in the same location and it should ease people towards more sustainable modes of transport. Secondly, we need to invest in alternatives. Suburban rail infrastructure has to be brought into operation. We also need to extend the metro lines and connect them to Park & Rides on the outskirts. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to create qualitative public space. International research shows that the more space you give to cars, the more cars you attract. Indeed, the most car-friendly cities are also the most congested. By giving back space to pedestrians and cyclists, cities can create places where people meet and connect. Child- and family-friendly cities, because it’s the streets and squares where our children should be able to play and be safe. The idea is not to ban cars from the city, but to find a new balance. Back to the future.

Brussels is slowly but surely making that move from a city for cars to a city for people. In 2015, we created a large pedestrian zone in the city center – completely redesigned to incorporate art, trees, benches and meeting places. The same goes for the Schuman Roundabout, surrounded by the buildings of the EU institutions. The zone will be remodeled and transformed into a proper square that does justice to the location’s status. As of this year, our second biggest shopping street will be pedestrianized as well. A project supported by local shopkeepers, because they were involved from the very beginning. 

Finally, we should actively promote walking as the first option to move inside the city. Inspired by London we are putting up walking maps at bus stands around the city. There’s a walking app which shows you the most scenic route and integrates secret passages that even Google Maps is not aware of. All in open data so that eventually, even Google can show the way. But most importantly, if qualitative space is given to pedestrians, they will use it happily.

Allow me to be optimistic. As a politician it is my moral duty. I am noticing change, something new is happening. There is a new generation of people who are fond of their city and want to make it a better place for residents and visitors alike. Cities around the world are making the same move. Together we should form a progressive coalition and show that we are cities where things can change. More space and more green. Let’s change, let’s go back to the future! 

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