Raise your hand if you’ve never done this: driving through small streets and lanes – the sidewalk so close you can almost touch it, – just to save five minutes on your journey to the main highway and away from the city.
From 16 August, that option is no longer available in Brussels. The ‘Good Move’ plan bans through traffic from the city centre whenever it’s not a driver’s final destination.
It’s no coincidence that the new mobility scheme was introduced in the Belgian capital, a city boasting an unwanted record: being one of Europe’s most congested.
Limiting the number of vehicles will inevitably decrease air and noise pollution, traffic and road accidents. For local officials, the idea is that with fewer vehicles around them, people will feel more at ease walking, riding a bike or hopping on public transport. Quieter streets and additional pedestrian space will, in turn, increase life quality and accessibility while encouraging residents to shop more locally.
‘Good Move’ is part of a wider plan of the Brussels Capital Region, a 162-kilometre area boasting 1,2 million residents and 19 municipalities. Aside from Brussels’ city centre – the so-called ‘Pentagon’ for its geometrical shape – the regional plan will bring ‘Good Move’ to a total of 63 neighbourhoods in the coming years, rerouting local traffic to the main road arteries.
Since its late summer launch, the budding mobility scheme has known its share of growing pains and controversy: from outraged drivers unable to take their usual routes, to business owners fearing that ‘Good Move’ will turn away car-loving clients.
In this interview, Elke van den Brandt, Brussels Capital Region’s Minister of Mobility, Public Works and Road Safety and the person in charge of the plan, acknowledges that it will take time for people to get used to it; however, she stands by ‘Good Move’ as Brussels’ best chance to get rid of its chronic traffic problems and become a more liveable, healthier city.
The ‘Good Move’ plan has come into force only a few months ago. How is it going so far?
“It’s been a few months, but on the other hand, it’s been a few years cause we’ve been preparing for quite some time. We started working on a new mobility plan in the previous legislative period and devoted plenty of time and investments to it.
We’re convinced that mobility can be a tool to change the city for the better, to promote a better quality of life and that’s the main vision behind our plan. We’ve worked to increase public spaces with green areas, to create places where people can meet and enjoy each other’s company, where children can play.”
How are you planning to get there?
“By changing our mobility routine and restructuring our roads. For example, we identified neighbourhoods where we will only allow local traffic. If you want to visit your grandmother in that neighbourhood, if you want to shop or if you live there, you would still be able to reach it by car.
Otherwise, that area will be banned to motorists whose final destination is not that neighbourhood. Through traffic accounts for 30% of traffic in Brussels and in many cases, it’s drivers who cut through neighbourhoods just to save a few minutes. We want to discourage them and redirect them to the ring and to the main roads. We’ve divided Brussels into different neighbourhoods and we’ll start to work with five per year.”
How hard is this initial phase?
“We know that we’re asking a lot, we know that it would be difficult and that people will need time to get used to the changes in our plan. At this stage, we need to show understanding, we need to listen to people and acknowledge their concerns.
We also know that we will need to make changes and adapt the plan because there will always be something. We’re trying to explain to people that once they get adjusted to the new situation, once everyone finds a new way to get home, their quality of life will improve; that there will be fewer cars, less noise, less air pollution and congestion.”
Do you already have examples from areas of Brussels that underwent similar changes in the past?
“I was recently in Place Flagey and I saw students sitting together after school, children playing with the water fountains springing from the ground. These are kids from the neighbourhood who often don’t have a garden or a balcony at home, so for them being outside is very important. Thanks to renovation efforts that started over a decade ago, the area around Place Flagey is now a socially inviting public space. We need to explain to people that this is also our plan’s desired outcome.
Elsewhere in town, there’s a part of Chausse’ d’Ixelles that’s now only accessible to buses, pedestrians, cyclists and those on other active modes of transport.
When car traffic was banned four years ago, business owners worried that they would lose clients because there were longer parking spots in front of their shops. But their fears didn’t materialise and shop revenues have actually gone up. In that area people were once all squeezed on a small sidewalk whereas now they are more relaxed, they can walk and shop more, and browse through the shop windows. So curbing traffic turned out to be good for business.”
How are explaining ‘Good Move’ to locals in Brussels?
“Making sure that everyone gets the message is easier said than done; that’s the hard part. For a year and a half, we’ve organised workshops, neighbourhood meetings, and online surveys; we’ve distributed leaflets in shops and restaurants that highlighted the idea behind our efforts.
We also went around asking people questions like ‘What would you like from Brussels’ mobility future’? We’ve tried to reach everyone: people with higher and lower incomes, from different neighbourhoods and different walks of life. This is an important step in the planning stage, but it’s impossible to reach everybody.
That’s particularly true for a city like Brussels with a lot of communities speaking many different languages. It’s also difficult to get into the hearts and minds of people before something is implemented. So many locals only found out about the ‘Good Move’ traffic circulation plan when we started implementing it.
That means that we need to continue our communication efforts. For example, on trains and on the roads we have employees providing travellers with information about how to get around and find alternative routes.
The main law of sustainable mobility is that if you’re taking something away you need to give something back. So if you reduce car access, you need to build a good cycling infrastructure and improve public transport and pedestrian areas. People are always going to wonder ‘What’s in it for me?’ People feel like we’re taking something away from them when we, say, take out parking spots to make room for a new cycling path, but we’re actually offering them an alternative. And the more alternatives we give, the fewer the people who will use their cars, the less congested traffic will be.”
How are you planning to give back that space?
“We’ve invested a lot in public transport which is supported by about 1/6 of the Brussels Region’s budget. Half of the people in town don’t own a car, so it’s essential to offer them qualitative public transport services.
In the past few years, we’ve increased the number of buses by 30%; we’ve improved the frequency of tram lines and we’re buying new accessible trams to cater to disabled and older people.
In addition, we’ve increased the frequency of metro rides: during rush hours, there are now only two minutes between one train and the next. We’ve also invested in the construction of a better cycling infrastructure.
Brussels is not yet a cycling city but improvements to the cycling network have encouraged locals to use it more and more, and now the number of cyclists in town has doubled. A better infrastructure also means more cyclists from different groups. I now see more women and more elderly people on bikes than in the past.
That’s important because it means that there’s more diversity. We also offer classes to those who don’t know how to ride yet and free bikes to those who can’t afford to buy them. At the same time, we’ve also invested in renovating the pavements and restoring the sidewalks. Unfortunately, all these improvements don’t generate headlines. When we take away a bit of space, that’s when we get in the papers.”
In Belgium, sustainable mobility efforts face one extra hurdle: many employers offer employees a company car because that comes with tax benefits for both. How to convince them to give up such an attractive perk?
“You cannot blame the employees or the employers for choosing a system that helps them save money. For companies, it’s cheaper to offer free cars than to pay higher salaries. But if you ask employees ‘Would you prefer to have a company vehicle or the same amount in cash?’ many would go for the money.
It would be better if employees could be paid more and use that extra money to decide how to move around and opt for sustainable modes of transport. This would require a reform of the national tax system and we’re working with the Belgian federal government to see if any changes can be made. It would be very important for Brussels because many of these company cars come to Brussels every morning. However, I’m well aware that this is a politically sensitive topic.”
What about air quality? How does tackling that issue fit with the ‘Good Move’ plan?
“Air quality in Brussels is not good. We’ve recently seen an improvement thanks to measures like the low-emission zone that’s been enforced throughout the Capital Region since 2018, but there’s still a lot to do.
The essential challenge is that if you look at air quality data and the city map, you see that low-income neighbourhoods have higher levels of air pollution: poorer areas where only 30% of people own a car are much more affected by through traffic and bad air quality than richer neighbourhoods. It’s undeniable that air pollution is a social issue.
Not only, that: health-related illnesses caused by air pollution cost us about €1,400 per person a year, as data from the European Public Health Alliance shows. Bad air quality is an invisible but very real threat to children’s health, for example. Many kids who live in areas with a lot of traffic suffer from lung issues.
Ultimately, quality of life, air pollution and climate change go hand in hand. If we take measures to fight climate change such as planting trees, we also fight air pollution. If we come up with a plan to curb traffic jams, we not only improve urban mobility, but we also help locals to be less stressed and allow them to have more time for themselves.”