Brussels’ growing pollution problem and its big bet on green transportation

Saturday, 02 March 2019 15:18
Julian Hale

Julian Hale is a Brussels-based freelance journalist with over 15 years of experience of EU policy debates.

There is a growing awareness worldwide about the problem of air pollution and its harmful effects on people in terms of causing diseases and even premature death.
Air pollution is responsible for around 12,000 premature deaths per year in Belgium, including 620 in Brussels, according to public data.

In Brussels, it has resulted in different measures to reduce street level pollution, where it matters most, by encouraging the use of electricity in the transport sector. All of them have potentially positive effects on the environment. Broadly speaking, Brussels is making steady progress in electric mobility.

Low Emissions Zone

Brussels Region’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) has been in place since January 2018. In practical terms, this means a ban on heavily polluting diesel vehicles circulating in the zone. The region has around 9,000 highly polluting diesel vehicles registered in its database.

The owners of these vehicles have been sent letters telling them that they will be fined €350 for every traffic offence, if they drive the vehicles in the LEZ (up to four fines per year). The first fines will be sent out in April this year. New categories of vehicles will be banned in the years ahead.

Electric/hybrid buses

The Brussels Region also aims to have all its buses fully electric with zero emissions by 2030 at a cost of around €1 billion. The policy is that any new purchases of buses should be hybrid or electric. There will be 235 hybrids in the next couple of years and 25 fully electric buses on two lines testing the technology.

The fully electric buses are called City buses and are green. One fully electric line (line 33 from the city center to Avenue Louise) has been operating since June 2018.

However, the technical infrastructure for the buses is not ready yet to operate a fully electric bus service. Another two bus lines will be tested this year with different charging technologies. One will run between Molenbeek and the European Quarter and the other in the south of Brussels around Uccle.

One of the lines is using overnight charging at a depot. The other line uses “opportunity charging” at the bus stops at the start and end of the line during the driver’s rest.

Charging stations for private e-cars

The regional government has given a concession to the Dutch operator PitPoint to operate stationary charging stations for private vehicles. The plan is to put in place a network of 100 recharging stations (each with two charging points) by the end of 2019. Right now there are about 28 charging stations open to the public.

Electric bicycles

There is already lots of traditional “pedal power” –Villo bicycles – in different stations around Brussels that you can hire. In 2019, the Brussels Region plans to make nearly half of this fleet electric (around 1,800 electric Villo bicycles). By the summer, there will be many electric bicycles available for hire.

Users who have a Villo subscription (cost: €33 per year) will have to pay the operator JC Decaux an extra €50 to hire a battery, which they will then charge themselves. Safety information will be provided to users with their subscription (e.g. how to use the electric bicycles safely at roundabouts and crossroads where there are a lot of vehicles).

The electric bicycles will travel at a maximum speed of 25 kilometres per hour (above that speed, users need a permit and helmet by law).

Bicycle lanes

The Brussels Region is planning to issue permits to put down new ochre-coloured bicycle lanes around the whole of the inner ring road. In 2018, new bicycle lanes were put down near the Madou Trone metro stations.

As a cyclist, I remember being very happy to notice for the first time the new cycle lanes around Madou and Trone metro. It is important that the same colour is used across Brussels to mark the cycle lanes, and that cycle lanes are continuous, clearly marked as cycle lanes and clearly visible for pedestrians and other road users.

Pedestrianisation

Pedestrianisation work will continue in eleven different areas in the Brussels region.

One of the areas is along Chaussee d’Ixelles near Porte de Namur. This is the second biggest shopping street in Brussels after Rue Neuve. For now, it is semi-pedestrian in that only buses can travel along this road between 7am and 7pm. In a second phase that is due to be completed this year, the central square will be redesigned between Porte de Namur and Place Ferdinand Coq.

Car parks

A new car park is designed to dissuade people from using their vehicles more than necessary and to cut pollution. It is located near the CERIA metro (line 5: Herman Debroux-Erasme) and close to two campuses for higher education (CERIA and Erasme) so that vehicle owners can park their car and travel to work by metro.

The new covered car park is being built on the site of an existing open air car park (200 spaces) and will have 1,350 spaces for cars and motorbikes and 270 spaces for bicycles. STIB public transport card holders will be charged a lower rate for parking their vehicles there. The operator is Parking Brussels and the cost of the car park is €14 million.

App for parking

A mobile app that helps drivers find car parks more quickly has been available since 2017. By finding a car park more quickly, drivers are less frustrated, burn less fuel and pollute less.

The application allows drivers to find car parks close to them and to plan the quickest route to get there (e.g. via Google Maps, Apple Maps or Waze). It contains 24,000 car parking spaces in 58 car parks.

Users can also determine which facilities they prefer by inputting that information, e.g. whether the car parks have charging stations for e-cars, bicycle parking or how close they are to public transport or a Villo rental bicycle.

61 car parks are currently covered by the application, which is called parking.brussels and is available free of charge in the App Store or on Google Play.

Intelligent traffic lights

Traffic lights along main roads (e.g. Boulevard Charles Quint and Boulevard Léopold II) have been synchronised so that traffic flows more smoothly. The Brussels Region estimates that CO2 emissions have fallen by about 5% since they were installed along these two roads in 2016.

Box junctions

In May 2016, the Brussels Region did a test introducing yellow boxes in the middle of crossroads. Drivers are not allowed to stop in these yellow boxes as they then block the road and prevent the smooth flow of traffic. There was a campaign to inform drivers about them with fliers.

This is now an ongoing project with more yellow boxes being painted in the middle of crossroads and fines of €55 being imposed on drivers who stop in the yellow boxes. Cameras will be introduced to ensure that the law is respected.

Bruxelles Mobility, who has been asked to introduce more of the yellow lines at many different crossroads, are currently preparing this. Three crossings have been marked so far with yellow box junctions (Sainctelette, Trône and Arts-Loi).

A general and overall conclusion is that it would be ideal for people living in Brussels if the regional government were to consider clearly communicating details about all anti-pollution measures that it is taking and provide measurements about pollution levels in Brussels. 

By Julian Hale

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