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A year ago, the center of Brussels and the automobile experienced a very public divorce.
At the end of the summer, the city began to implement its ambitious version of the regional plan Good Move, which aims to reduce car traffic by 24% by 2030.
In a bid to stop cars from driving through the city center – known as the Pentagon – and diverting them to a ring road, authorities have turned major thoroughfares into one-way streets, restricted access to some avenues to public transport and priority vehicles, and even some boulevards have been completely pedestrianised.
Twelve months later, the results are striking.
“In just over a year, we have seen a 27 percent drop transit traffic in the city center and an astonishing 36 per cent increase in the number of cyclists on our streets,” said Bart Dhondt, councilor responsible for mobility.
“We are seeing a modal shift: people are banking on active mobility and it’s great not only for their personal health but also for that of residents who are now less exposed to harmful emissions from automobiles and threats from motor vehicle traffic. .”
Dhondt admitted the project got off to a rocky start: the first few weeks were marked by frequent traffic jams, protests from pro-auto activists and complaints from angry residents and worried business owners.
“We knew this was not going to be a walk in the park and we understood the concerns of traders whose lives are conditioned by the uncertainty of never knowing what one will earn the following month.”, Dhondt said. “We also sympathized with car-owning residents who were concerned about how their lives and how their routines might change.”
Despite the grumbling, the city stayed the course, supported in part by numbers showing huge drops in peak-hour traffic at key intersections in the three months after the plan was rolled out, Dhondt said.
By late fall, there were an average of 20 percent fewer cars in the city center, with evening rush hour vehicle numbers dropping by as much as 50 percent in some places.
The alderman argued that the positive impacts of the project – including better air quality and less noise from cars – had already attracted increasing numbers of people to settle in the historic center of Brussels and had contributed to the increase in property values in the neighborhood.
A revamped city center
The economic impact of a reduction in car traffic is difficult to assess.
The alderman acknowledged that some businesses had closed, but pointed out that the local economy was also affected by other factors.
“Companies are facing an energy crisis, inflation and the consequences of the war in Ukraine,” he explained. “It’s not easy to hear, but you also have to accept that cities are constantly evolving and that the neighborhoods – and the businesses in them – change.”
Dhondt said the number of large companies that have decided to open offices in the city center over the past year suggests the changes have been positive. He cited the example of the French oil giant Total, which chose the Anspach pedestrian boulevard to accommodate its new Belgian headquarters.
“You have a company that is not the greenest that chooses to locate here because its employees have explicitly requested (a place of work) that they can access without having to own a car, a place from which they can walk to cool bars and restaurants after work,” he said.
“As a city, we’re trying to get people back to where they work, to keep the offices alive, and part of making them attractive is making sure that the environment makes them a more attractive option than just Work at home.”
The city now wants to make permanent and more attractive the temporary infrastructure used to implement Good Move – mainly cement barriers.
The makeshift La Chapelle skate park, set up in a disused car park as part of the project, is one of the areas that Dhondt says could be made more attractive. Greenery and wider sidewalks are also expected to be installed on some of the redeveloped streets.
These visual reminders will be essential to shore up public support ahead of Belgium’s regional elections next year, which are expected to be an informal referendum on the Green Party which won representation in 11 of the capital region’s 19 municipalities in 2018. .
While the city of Brussels seems to have succeeded in rolling out the Good Move measures, other municipalities have halted or even canceled similar measures due to public opposition. Dhondt said implementing these plans would require courage and dialogue, both with locals and with political parties like the Socialists, with whom the Greens govern in Brussels.
“It’s important for people to know that these are political decisions, progress that should not be taken for granted because it can be undone,” he said.
“A city that does not move is a city that is dying,” he added. “I am proud that Brussels is a city that is changing, progressing, becoming a better and greener place to live.”