Boulevard Anspach runs through the Brussels’ city centre. Its broad lanes are filled with snarling traffic. It is noisy and dirty. It feels like cars and people are in competition. Pedestrian crossings exist but drivers give the impression that stopping is an optional extra.
The scene will become an anachronism on Monday (29 June) in some parts of the city, when new rules come into force which will reduce the places downtown where cars will be allowed.
In the week before, banners could be seen near the city’s stock exchange that said the “pedestrian [is] king”.
The area where cars are banned in the EU capital will increase from 28 to 50 hectares, making what the municipal government said is the largest pedestrian zone in Europe.
“The main reason is to make the centre more attractive”, Marc Daniels, a spokesperson for the municipality’s transport alderwoman, told this website.
“We found that much of the traffic going through the centre was north-south transit traffic, which led to traffic jams and pollution”, he added.
Daniels noted that the city government expects more people to switch to public transport, bikes, or walking.
However, not everyone is convinced of the success of the new “circulation plan”, which will be evaluated after an eight-month test phase.
“We’ll see after the summer”, said Reynold Leclercq, co-founder of the comic book shop Bruesel. A large part of the Boulevard Anspach in front of his shop will be closed to traffic.
“We’re not in Barcelona. Half of the year it’s cold and raining”, he added, on Brussels’ pedestrianisation hopes.
Leclercq fears for people’s personal safety on the city centre’s large, empty streets. He also thinks he’ll lose customers.
The plan has also been criticised, but for other reasons, by the Brussels-based European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF).
“It will do something to improve air quality, but not enough because the plan does not reduce car traffic around the pedestrian area”, ECF’s urban mobility officer Benedicte Swennen told this website.
According to a recent ECF report, the impact on air pollution of introducing car-free streets is limited if not complemented by other measures.
“As for those measures directed at reducing the demand for car use, the most relevant were congestion-charging schemes, low-emission zones, parking rationing and increasing vehicle costs”, its report noted.
Since 2005, Brussels has not been able to lower the amount of particulate matter – which causes major health problems – in the air to meet levels required by EU limits.
On 18 June, the EU commission referred Belgium, as well as Bulgaria, to the European Union’s Court of Justice for its failure to meet the targets.
Although the local government wants to make Brussels “more breathable for its inhabitants”, Daniels stressed that it alone cannot solve the air pollution problem.
“Let’s be realistic, all of Western Europe suffers from particulate matter”, the spokesperson said.
One reason why the car is such a popular means of transport in Brussels, and the entire country, is that the government gives tax breaks for companies that want to give employees cars as part of their salary.
Last year, OECD economist Michelle Harding found that among its 34 member countries, Belgium gives the highest fiscal incentives for employers on company cars.
The average subsidy per company car is €1,600 per year, but it’s €2,763 in Belgium.
But that, Daniels said, is not something the local government of Brussels can do anything about.