By Devon Paige Willis
Devon is doing a Masters program called 4Cities, an Erasmus Mundus Masters that takes students from Brussels to Vienna, Copenhagen and Madrid to study cities. Gehl Architects met her when she was interning at the Montréal Urban Ecology Center in 2013.
In September, I moved to Brussels for my studies. Before arriving I knew little about the Belgian (and de-facto European) capital besides what I learned when I visited in 2010 and what I heard from friends: tasty waffles and fries, a strange statue of a boy peeing, two official languages and a good system of trams. I had been told it often rains and each time I told someone my Master’s program involves studying in four European cities, unequivocally Brussels prompted the least enthusiastic response.
It turns out that Brussels is an incredibly interesting city – the politics, the culture, the diversity and its interesting past make it great material for learning about cities. It is also a liveable kind of city; with everything an urbanite needs (although public transportation could be better: all transit ends by midnight during the week). However, there is one major problem: the car culture.
The thing that hands down surprised me the most about Brussels is the number of cars and the sheer place devoted to automobiles in the city. Cycling in Brussels is challenging for several reasons (the hills, the cobblestone), not least the cars. In fact, Brussels is arguably the most congested city in Europe.
This surprised me not only because of the stereotypes I had about European cities being from North America, but also because during my internship at the Montreal Urban Ecology Center last year we would often cite the progressive highway code in Belgium, which (it would seem) gives priority to the most vulnerable road users (pedestrians first and then cyclists). However, after five months in Brussels, it seems that at least in this Belgian city the code is not fully embraced – or enforced.
First, pedestrians are not given priority. At crosswalks they often they wait for cars to stop and often the cars do not. Distance between crosswalks exacerbates the problem as pedestrians choose to cut across to avoid long detours. In 2009, there were 88 deaths for every 1 million inhabitants in Belgium (compared to 43 in the Netherlands) and Brussels has the most traffic accidents of Belgium with 1000 accidents per million vehicle kilometers driven in 2010, in comparison to less than 500 in both Gent and Liège (CEESE – ULB et Transport & Mobility Leuven 2009).
Second, there are cars everywhere, even under the Atomium, which is something like the Eiffel Tower of Belgium. There are many parking lots in Brussels, including large lots in front of the town halls. Finally, there are even cars in the parks. One of the largest parks, Bois de la Cambre, is cross-crossed by roads, with few pedestrian crosswalks, forcing pedestrians to cross traffic to continue walking, running or cycling (although the roads at closed Friday to Sunday in the summer months).
In comparison, Amsterdam is a cyclists’ paradise. This came as no surprise, Amsterdam is known to be one of the most cyclable cities. However, I felt it all the more after living in Brussels. Amsterdam is smaller and flatter than Brussels, which makes walking and cycling easier and more enjoyable, especially along the canals which give a romantic feeling to the city (Brussels also has a canal, but it remains largely industrial). The bicycle paths are extensive, connected and separated from traffic. Cyclists have priority, even over pedestrians it seems, as many times I had to stop to allow cyclists to pass as I walked in the centre.
In the four days I was walking around Amsterdam I only heard a car honk once, while in Brussels drivers honk habitually. In Brussels you must plan your trip by bicycle ahead of time to avoid congested roads and steep inclines, but in Amsterdam even as a tourist I was able to manoeuvre the city with little difficulty though it is true that pedestrians must be wary of oncoming bicycle traffic. I was even able to cycle outside the city, explore residential areas and make my way back to the centre thanks to a system signage along the bicycle path network.
The level of car usage and congestion is a problem for Brussels. So much that recently the mayor of Brussels commune, which is the city centre of the Brussels Capital Region, has talked about decreasing cars from the city centre, namely from Anspach, a large boulevard. The Netherlands do not have significantly less cars than Belgium (449 per 1000 inhabitants versus 471 in Belgium), yet car usage is visibly lower in the Netherlands. While there are challenges to shifting mode choice in Brussels – a car culture, a sprawling urban population, and a challenging topography – the city should move towards a less car-dependent model, as the current state of congestion, stressed drivers and vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists resembles more an American city than a city that wishes to be capital of Europe.