One-Year Anniversary: Will the Pandemic Transform Brussels’ Mobility System for Good?

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18 March 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the first of many coronavirus-related traffic changes in Brussels, the notoriously car-centric “capital of Europe”. Could the pandemic be the event that turbo-charged Brussels’ transformation towards a more sustainable mobility system?

The national lockdown of Belgium started on 18 March 2020. On that day, Philippe Close, mayor of Brussels City, announced that from the following day, cars would no longer be allowed to drive through Bois de la Cambre, a large park that also served as a link for many motorists between the city and its southern suburbs.

 

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The measure, introduced to accommodate new social distancing standards, quickly became a huge success. Closure of the 6 km of road created recreational space for thousands of people; and thousands came. The whole park benefitted from the newfound absence of engine noise and fumes and, after several rounds of adjustments, the majority of Bois de la Cambre remains car-free today, one year later.

Close it, and they will come. Closure of the roads crossing Bois de la Cambre created space for recreation for thousands of people.

Cycling Out of the Crisis

The instant success of Bois de la Cambre heralded a slew of temporary cycling measures across the city, granting citizens a sneak peak of how urban mobility can change for the better; even in a notoriously car-centric city such as Brussels.

In April 2020, Elke van de Brandt, minister of mobility of the Brussels Capital Region, announced a plan of 40 km of pop-up cycle lanes. The lanes were selected to close gaps on main corridors connecting suburbs with the city centre, allowing cyclists and pedestrians distancing space on already busy sections. Ten additional kilometres were subsequently announced in September.

In parallel, the region offered technical and organisational support for municipalities to implement local traffic-calming measures to provide space for recreation or safe access to shops and services.

One year into the pandemic, nearly 60 km of streets across Brussels have become more cycle friendly due to special, coronavirus-related measures. The following examples demonstrate just how quickly, and easily, a car-centric city like Brussels transformed into a cycle-friendly hub in an impressively short space of time.

The initial plan of completing the main regional routes with sections of pop-up cycle lanes (left); traffic calming and restrictions measures implemented by municipalities (right).

Rue de la Loi: Brussels’ Ugliest Street

Rue de la Loi is widely regarded as one of the ugliest streets in Brussels, accommodating high volumes of traffic and not a single tree. However, it is also one of the most frequented by cyclists, serving as the main connection between the European Quarter and the historical centre of the city.

In just three days (or rather nights) at the beginning of May, one of the four car lanes was transformed into a proper bi-directional cycle track, marking a significant improvement for both pedestrians and cyclists.

Pop-up cycle lane on Rue de la Loi, created over 3 nights in May 2020. Old cycle track visible on the sidewalk.

A few months later, a pop-up cycle lane appeared on a 2 km section of the major E40 motorway between Diamant and Avenue des Communautés. As for now, this is the widest cycle track in Brussels; up to 10 m wide. If this lane is extended to connect with the Flemish Region’s brand-new F203 cycle highway, they will provide a direct cycle route from the north-eastern suburbs of Brussels to the European Quarter.

The widest track in Brussels (10 m wide)

“Corona-Flowerpots”: Filtered Permeability Gives Breathing Space

The pandemic exposed the desperate need of recreational spaces in cities. An interesting example of how to deliver these can be found on Avenue Charles de Gaulle along Ixelles Ponds. To reduce pedestrian congestion on the narrow sidewalk, the street was cut in two locations, eliminating through traffic with the help of characteristic “corona-flowerpots” that filter traffic by blocking cars while giving passage to cyclists and pedestrians. The street was then classified as a home zone, allowing pedestrians to use the whole width of the carriageway.

“Corona-flowerpots” filtering out car traffic on Avenue Charles de Gaulle in the municipality of Ixelles.

The Results: Effective and Popular?

But how effective are temporary measures such as these in bringing about actual, longstanding mobility change? So far, the cycling measures of Brussels have yielded impressive results.

Comparing the whole of 2020 to 2019, cycle traffic measured by automatic counters in Brussels increased by an astonishing 64%, while car traffic decreased by 20%. With regards to commuting trips between home and work, a survey of private businesses by Acerta showed an increase of the share of both cycling and public transport and a decrease in the share of cars.

And while expanding the space for pedestrians and cyclists has met its share of controversies and even lawsuits, a survey carried out in December by the Belgian road safety institute VIAS, 65% of participants evaluated the changes positively, while only 17% negatively.

Cycling Beyond COVID-19

Brussels is one of the 309 European cities that have used cycling as a way of COVID-19 prevention and recovery, as tracked in the ECF COVID-19 measures dashboard. During the past year, nearly €1.2 billion of additional funding has been allocated across Europe for cycling promotion measures. And out of the announced 2,570 km of cycle measures, 55% have already been implemented.

In other words, the pandemic has inarguably acted as a catalyst for mobility change, granting a previously impossible insight into how cities like Brussels can reinvent their mobility systems. It is now a case of putting long-term investment into these temporary measures.

With Belgium having already earmarked €458 million for cycling infrastructure in its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, the future of cycling in Brussels looks brighter than ever.

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