Brussels: from a city for cars to a city for people
Three open letters in the past couple of weeks by residents of Brussels saying that enough is enough. That things are not going well, asking why one would wish to continue living in this city?
First, a group of doctors and health organisations rightly expressed their concerns about the poor air quality in the region. Second came expat Gareth Harding, who is irritated by the longstanding and messy building sites in Brussels. A disgrace to a city that refers to itself as the capital of Europe. Third, Celia Ledoux, a big fan of the city for many years, has fallen out of love with it, because too many of the dreams and promises made remain unfulfilled in Brussels.
All three letters should be taken seriously, because they are written by people who are not the moaning type. On the contrary, these are people who are genuinely concerned about Brussels and mean well. People who are right in saying that it's not utopia to want clean air, beautiful squares, safe streets and more green areas. People who are frustrated because they have the feeling that Brussels is a city with (too) many politicians, but with few taking actual responsibility.
It is clear that a city with a regional government, 19 communes, in a federal country such as Belgium is already very complex on its own. But Brussels also bears the weight of a city in which cars for many decades ruled the roads. This has turned it into a hell with daily traffic jams, congested tunnels and polluted air.
That should not be an excuse, but allow me to be optimistic. As a politician in this city it is my moral duty. Bear with me before calling it naive. I am noticing change, something new is happening to this city. There is a new generation of bruxellois – including those who have written these letters – people with a heart for the city who want to make it a better place, more enjoyable for its residents. They want more space for cyclists, parks, pedestrian zones and safe play sites for their kids.
And they are right. A number of basic issues must be tackled with elsewhere, such as the federal subsidies for company cars used by the 250 000 commuters who enter and leave the city every day, most of them driving in on their own; a tax regime that stimulates living in rural areas, or the cuts in public transport just outside Brussels. But we shouldn’t hide and finger point. There is much to do at the local level as well. Concrete city cancers that divide neighbourhoods and give priority to cars must disappear. Recent actions such as demolishing the Reyers viaduct and making the lanes in the city centre car-free are, as far as I'm concerned, only the starting point of a broader move which is aimed at giving the city back to its people. The aim should be to invest in new public areas. Other projects are in the pipeline: there will be new a park at the ‘Porte de Ninove’, another one near Tour & Taxis, pedestrian squares in Jette and Woluwe-Saint-Pierre.
But we have more ambitious goals: in the next 10 years we will invest more than 5 billion in extra subways, more tramlines and eco-friendly buses that will provide a better service. From next year on, families will also benefit from a reduction on their children’s season tickets, as an incentive for them to use public transport. And very soon Gareth Harding will receive an invitation for the opening of the refurbished Schuman and Arts-Loi metro stations, because these projects have been speeded up and are now close to being (finally) concluded. Furthermore, we will provide for some extra 80 (!) kilometres of new cycling lanes, including around the inner city ring where parking will have to give way to new space for trees, cyclists and pedestrians. And, last but not least, this government has the aim to come up with an ambitious green taxing system by next year. All of these are not vague promises, but indeed real projects that will materialise in the years to come.
We have started to move in the direction of a new, attractive and more enjoyable Brussels and I truly believe that we will continue to make things better. I hope that Celia will fall in love with Brussels again, that Gareth can be proud of his host city, and that we can let our children play outdoors without having to be worried. As the Danish architect Jan Gehl so clearly said: we should go from a city for cars to a city for people.