Belgian politics is at first glance an indecipherable labyrinth of different levels of governments and laws. But it does not have to be this way! Check back in regularly with The Brussels Times as we try to shine some light on matters.
In an attempt to help the uninitiated navigate such a complex system, we will be speaking regularly with politicians from the regional, national and European level. If there is a particular topic you would like us to put to those in power, get in touch!
To kick off this series, the Brussels region’s minister for mobility, Elke Van Den Brandt (Greens), spoke with Sam Morgan about the topics she is working on and what the future of transport holds for the city.
How much independence does the Brussels government have to set its own mobility policy?
As you know, Brussels is Belgium within Belgium: institutionally, everything is extra complex. But institutions can never be an excuse for immobility. People in our city have the right to clean air and safe streets. I didn’t go into politics to block progress, I’m here to get things done. Poor air quality or dangerous road crossings don’t wait for power levels to come together. It’s up to politicians to make things work.
So, the Brussels Region is investing massively in public transport. We use tactical urbanism to change things fast and we plan ahead to change things structurally. My favourite example up to now: almost a year ago, we lowered the speed limit in our region, from 50 to 30km/h. It’s not perfect, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to improve infrastructure, but we already see the results in dropping numbers of road casualties.
How is public transport funded, is it just from ticket sales or does it need money from the regional budget too?
In a normal, non-corona year, just over half of the budget is subsidised. Some 40% comes from ticket sales. Public transport is a common good. It’s as Tony Judt puts it: “They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord and, in recent times, common expenditure: by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike.”
In Brussels, the public transport company STIB has a fabulous track record. Our public transport, the best in Belgium, is something people in Brussels are really proud of. In ten years, the number of travellers has increased by 50%: now, there are more than a million trips a day. Public transport is the most efficient way of moving around the city, and we invest heavily to get cleaner vehicles, more tram and bus lines, a new metro line and more capacity.
Luxembourg recently decided to make public transport free, is this something that the Brussels region has ever thought about or considered?
We recently made bus passes for people under 25 years as good as free: we ask a yearly fee of €12, €1 a month. It works: the first six months, 40% more passes have been sold. These are young people who are starting their adult life, cultivating habits and discovering the city on their own. I foresee an effect that will last: habits learned young are repeated when you are older.
A new budget is due for 2022, will there be more money for initiatives like extra bike lanes or traffic cameras to help enforce the 30km zone?
I’m really excited about all the things we’ll be able to do next year. As much as 20% of the budget goes to mobility, public works and road safety. A big part of it, €1 billion, will be invested in public transport. In a few days, we’re going to inaugurate an important part of the new Tram Line 9, a crucial connection for the north of Brussels. A new bus line is on its way too: Line 65 will connect CERIA in Anderlecht with Brussels Midi station. And all those different options will be easier to see and to combine than ever: 2022 will be the first year of MaaS, Mobility as a Service. It’s an app that shows you the best, fastest, cleanest options to go from A to B.
The City 30 zone will be enforced not only with extra traffic cameras, we’ll also install speed cushions and other relatively small infrastructural changes to secure the streets and better their legibility. We’ll also reconstruct large streets and intersections to improve permeability, to add green areas and to redistribute space in favour of active road users.
In the coming months, the first low traffic neighbourhoods are going to be installed. Through traffic will be made almost impossible in the first six areas of the region: the Pentagon, the core of Schaerbeek, Saint-Gilles, Cureghem, Flagey (Ixelles) and Dieleghem (Jette). The circulation plans are being finished as we speak. Many other improvements are on the table, too many to mention. People in Brussels will see a lot of small and big changes in the course of 2022.
During the pandemic, a lot of measures were put in place quickly: pedestrianised streets, pop-up bike paths etc. Are those features now legal or must they be legalised?
They’re legal, of course. Luckily, we had our Good Move plan as a framework to operate within. Yet they’re not yet definitive, but we’re fully engaged in drawing up the definitive plans. The pop-up measures are doing their job: more people are walking and cycling then ever before in our capital, the number of cyclists has risen by a whopping 64% between 2020 and 2021. For the first time since car dominance started to mutilate our city in the 1950s, we see a lot of children cycling and in our streets. We see that the need for space and safe streets is there. And we know more cyclists and pedestrians means more business and happiness, less stress and congestion, more autonomous people.
How much power does the Brussels government have to tackle issues like company cars and incentives? Is this something that can only be changed at federal level?
Company cars are a federal competence. We can kindly ask to dismantle that system, but we cannot decide ourselves. I’m glad the federal government decided to make the shift to electric company cars, it’s a first, small step. But I always tend to look at what we can do within our own competences. And we have fiscal levers. My colleague, Sven Gatz, developed Smart Move, a flexible system based on the principle of a congestion charge. This ‘user pays’ idea would replace the current flat tax on car ownership. Our studies show it would lead to 25% fewer individual car trips. That alone would solve traffic jams. It would free up space, inviting more people to cycle or walk. Public transport would be even more efficient, since buses and trams still get stuck in traffic.
New trams, metros and buses are slowly being seen on the city’s streets. Have these new vehicles been purchased with factors like climate change and accessibility in mind? Tram 51s, for example, are almost completely inaccessible.
Those two factors are crucial to me, not only for public transport vehicles. Accessibility is still a big issue in our streets and for people using public transport. STIB is now systematically adapting tram and bus stops to ensure that people with reduced mobility can get into the tram or bus smoothly, without a barrier. We have also appointed an accessibility officer at Brussel Mobility, the administration that oversees and manages the roads.
As for climate: public transport and active modes are way better than personal vehicles. Trams and metro are electrified by definition and we have a route towards 100% electrified or zero-emission buses before 2036.
There is more and more infrastructure for active mobility, but as this is a big change for motorists and there have been tensions, even aggression, how is the government going to try to ease that transition? Can more be done to police bike lanes to make sure drivers don’t park in them, for example?
The great majority of road users respect each other and traffic codes. But it’s true: tensions have risen since cars are not the only vehicles using the streets any more. In a city, you always have a mix of road users. Where different users are really mixed, differences in speed should not be too big: that’s one of the reasons we lowered the speed limit. Secured, separate infrastructure is also a solution. While we’re in this modal shift, police zones are stepping up their game. For example, every police zone in our region now has a bicycle brigade: police officers on a bike, who know the weak spots very well and can intervene immediately.
E-scooters and bike shares are now a big part of how many people get around Brussels. Are there now rules and guidelines in place for how companies should manage their distribution? Are there penalties for any firms that breach them?
Shared mobility and micro-mobility are two of those evolutions that arrived at the speed of light and change the view and use of our streets. They provide a very good solution for a lot of ‘last miles’: the last part of a longer journey. At the same time, regulation is needed to counter the chaos those parked steps and scooters often create. The can be a huge obstacle for pedestrians. Just in a few month , a decree will be proposed in Parliament to regulate these companies, obliging users to park in a designated drop zone and limit their speed.
Where is your favourite place to bike or walk or just be in Brussels? Any particular beauty spots that you are drawn to at the weekends or after work (when there is daylight available of course!)
I actually really adore tram line 44: it takes you along impressive lanes and right through the Sonian Forest. A beautiful journey, every time of the year!