Brussels has been dominated by cars since the 1950s when driving came into fashion. The city was redesigned to accommodate the increasing traffic and the commuters from other parts of Belgium by digging tunnels, creating parking spaces and giving priority to cars everywhere. The dominance of the car has altered the character of the medieval city and much like other agglomerations with a lot of traffic, Brussels is suffering from air pollution.
Although the city is still a paradise for company cars due to strong tax incentives that are only recently being phased out, more than half of Brussels’ residents are already using public transport and an increasing number of people are walking and biking. But the confinement period has clearly shown that keeping the required distances whilst walking, biking and jogging is a difficult task. People are zigzagging through the streets in some kind of ‘corona-dance’ and often get into conflict with cars.
With the lockdown coming to an end, Brussels is making a strong move towards active modes of transport. The city issued new traffic rules that should help keeping the social distance in line with the rules that Belgium has issued for corona times. 'Ending the lockdown poses great challenges, and radical decisions are necessary,' said Elke Van den Brandt, the regional mobility minister. 'This could start a cycling revolution in Brussels.'
Pedestrians and cyclists now have priority everywhere in the centre and can use the entire street. Streets have become 'slow streets' limiting the speed of cars and busses to 20km/h. Outside of the inner circle and practically overnight, big city highways such as Rue de la Loi have received bike lanes secured by concrete separators from the car lanes. The new cycling paths now offer enough space for pedestrians and cyclists. Bart Dhondt, City Councillor for Mobility in Brussels tells German TV ZDF: 'We see that the traffic calming measures which we are introducing make Brussels more resilient during this time of fighting a health crisis, a pandemic. We are giving more space to pedestrians and cyclists, and in doing so, we are making our city more liveable, healthier and safer.'
Brussels' Mayor Philippe Close explains that: 'Nobody is excluded and everybody can use the means of transport he or she chooses to. All we have done is changing the hierarchy: first pedestrians, then cyclists, then public transport and finally cars. … Of course, there is criticism as we have done this in a very radical way. But this test phase will now serve as basis for future discussion.'
For Brussels, the car city, changing the hierarchy is indeed a little revolution. Interestingly, riding on the momentum created by the COVID-19 crisis, Brussels was able to introduce radical measures and to create a fait accompli that will now become the benchmark for further developments in urban mobility. It seems that special times enable special measures.
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