Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
When the air gets bad, transit would be free. When it gets worse, the city would effectively grind to a halt.
In Brussels’s fight against extreme pollution, the city is taking some of the most radical action plotted by a Western capital so far. After a slate of drastic new measures were approved this month, the city’s plan to fight especially poor air quality includes some standard fare, like temporarily making public transit free, but also some last-resort measures that could effectively place the city on lockdown when the air gets especially dangerous.
The moves agreed by the Belgian Capital Region are as follows. If levels of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere stay high (above 50 micrograms per cubic meter) for over 48 hours, the city will make all public transit and bikesharing free. Speed limits would be slashed, and wood burning for any home that possesses an alternative heat source would be banned.
These moves are decisive, but not unprecedented—Paris and Madrid have similar emergency measures in their arsenal. But Brussels would be prepared to go much further. If pollution peaks persisted or worsened, the heating of office buildings would be banned, a ruling that could be followed by the ultimate measure of a complete ban on all non-electric, non-emergency vehicles circulating. If the city pulled out all these stops, it could effectively grind to a halt.
These measures are only planned to target true emergencies, not ongoing problems. The regional environmental agency recommends that particulate levels remain below 20 micrograms per cubic meter, meaning pollution would have to reach two and a half times the level the agency deems desirable before emergency measures kick in.
They are, however, only the most striking of a general push to wean the city of its car dependency. On January 1, the capital region introduced a Low Emissions Zone that covers the entire capital region minus the ring road. This zone effectively bans the most polluting diesel vehicles (those with emissions at Euro 1 standard, built before 1997, or no standard at all). Owners of these vehicles can drive into the city on a maximum of 8 days annually, but only by purchasing a €35 ($43) daily pass that renders them prohibitively expensive. Each year, the Low Emission Zone’s restrictions will tighten. By 2025, only drivers of the cleanest category of diesel car, and the four cleanest categories of gas-powered cars will be allowed in.
This staggered implementation means Brussels will have to wait a long time for air quality improvements—there aren’t that many diesel vehicles built before 1997 on the road—but at least it’s moving in the right direction. With a congestion charge also being considered, Brussels’s Mobility Minister Pascal Smet has made it clear that the moves are purposefully intended to dissuade people from driving. “If you drive less than 10,000 km per year, it’s not worth buying and owning a car and you are better off sharing it with others,” he told the Brussels Times. “On average, cars are parked 95 percent of the time in Brussels.”
There’s a decisiveness to Brussels’s push for cleaner air that, at least seen from afar, is impressive. The problems they are designed to alleviate, however, are grave, and some form of action is desperately needed. The city’s air quality is appalling—the worst of any Western European capital, and comfortably surpassing larger cities such as London, Paris, and Rome in its high levels of carcinogenic particulates. The source of these problems is not hard to find. Diesel fuel has long dominated Belgium’s vehicle fleet, falling from a remarkable 78.9 percent of all cars to a still huge 51.8 percent share in 2017. It is only this week that diesel prices have in some places climbed above gas prices, finally removing the fiscal incentive for generally more polluting cars.
But diesel use isn’t the only culprit. By European standards, Brussels remains a very car-reliant city, with over 50 percent of commuters using cars for at least part of their journey—almost double the rate in Paris—partly because public transit coverage in the outskirts is patchy. The city’s bike lane network is reasonably good, but cycling and walking rates are still low: Just 6 percent of all journeys take place by bike or on foot. The result of all this is legendary traffic jams that pump the city full of harmful pollutants.
There’s been public pressure on the state to change the situation for some time. In November, a coalition of 100 doctors highlighted the city’s pollution problem in an open letter, noting that poor air quality killed an estimated 632 people prematurely across Belgium every year. The city’s residents have been getting restive, too. Earlier this month, a demonstration saw city statues being draped with protective masks, as if to spare their poor bronze and marble lungs.
Tellingly, the Capital Region’s politicians are sympathetic, but have struggled for collective action. Smet, the mobility minister, actually applauded the doctors’ intervention, but in an urban region where much power remains vested in 19 municipalities, brokering collective action can be laborious. This is a city, after all, with six separate police forces, and where a parking permit can be valid for one side of the street straddling a municipal border, but not the other. The Capital Region also struggles with the limits of its remit. An officially bilingual territory squeezed between the French-speaking Wallonia Region and Dutch-speaking Flanders, its leaders have strongly criticized plans to expand the city’s beltway. Because the highway lies just outside the Capital Region in Flanders, however, those protests are so far failing to change the road plans.
The poor quality of Brussels’s air has another ironic twist to it. Across the E.U., it is the Brussels-located European Commission that is charged with reproving states who fail in their mutually agreed air quality targets. Just last month, environment ministers from nine E.U. states were summoned to Brussels to account for the insufficiency of their policies for combating air pollution. The European Commission itself is in no way directly responsible for managing Brussels’s air quality and transit, but it’s at least a little awkward to summon Europe’s environmental shirkers to a city that itself is often heavy-breathing under a pall of toxic filth.
Brussels’s new emergency measures won’t flush the Capital Region’s skies clean in a hurry. But at least they’re a sign of a genuine will to clear the air at Europe’s heart.