Mobility in Brussels is Bigger than the City Centre

Brussels unveiled the test phase of its new car-free centre at the weekend, with temporary barriers and new road markings almost springing up around the cars at noon on Sunday. As someone who moves around the city easily without a car, but who is regularly faced with the congestion, pollution and noise that cars inflict on the neighbourhoods they pass through, this should be a good thing.

I also received an email inviting me to take part in a survey organised by the public transport companies of the capital region, Flanders and Wallonia, as well as NMBS/SNCB, the national railway company. Since a large part of Brussels’ traffic problems come from car dependence from commuters in the suburbs and metropolitan area, it should also be a good thing that there are efforts being made to improve ticketing and integration of public transport across regional borders.

Integrated ticketing could be the sort of initiative that could support the GEN/RER trains when they come into service, making it as easy to pay for travel from a commuter town to an urban office, as it is for me to swipe my MoBIB card on the tram.

Photograph of protesters intervening at an evening discussion of mobility at the AB in Brussels by unfurling banners.

But despite all the lovely initiatives, I keep finding myself taking critical positions against them, for the simple reason that they make little reference to one another. A car-free zone in the pentagon will naturally have massive consequences for traffic in almost all neighbouring municipalities, but it was developed without reference to them. Even within the City of Brussels, I remember the public consultation for the car-free zone, in which questions about how it would interact with the same municipality’s plans for more multi-story car parks and a ‘parking ring road’ around the city (bisecting the car-free zone in a couple of places) were not allowed.

There will be positive elements of removing cars from the main avenues in the centre of the city, but without joined-up thinking, providing, for example, comprehensive park-and-ride facilities on the periphery of the city for commuters who must use their cars, and boosting rail capacity in the commuter ‘catchment area’ of Brussels, initiatives that displace cars risk causing resentment among residents, pedestrians, cyclists, and, naturally, drivers.

Is it so hard to find a mechanism that can work across the borders of Brussels’ municipalities? In other areas of city policy, tools such as ‘axis contracts’ which, seek ‘to offer a transversal solution for problems that are linked on a degraded axis, following a logic of connection and alignment between neighbourhoods’*, work around the institutionally-created dysfunctionality and attempt to fix problems that cross from one part of the city to another. I cross through 6 municipalities on my way to work every day; I don’t think my sort of commute is abnormal: mobility in this city needs to mean mobility in the whole city.

*”om een transversale oplossing te bieden voor de problemen die aan gedegradeerde assen zijn verbonden, volgens een logica van binding en afstemming tussen de wijken”