A photo of a newly pedestrianized area of central Brussels in 2015.
A newly pedestrianized area of central Brussels in 2015. The city is now systematically banning cars from major boulevards. Eric Vidal/Reuters

The Belgian capital is one of the most congested in Europe. But an ambitious suite of street makeovers is pushing traffic outside the central city.

Right now, there can be an almost eerie calm to some sections of central Brussels. Take an evening stroll down down Boulevard Anspach, the broad avenue that forms the Belgian capital’s spine, and you may find the roadway empty, its limestone and wrought-iron facades echoing the footsteps of a rare passer-by on the sidewalk.

This uncanny silence in the heart of a blaring metro area of 2.2 million residents—known as one of Europe’s most notoriously congested capitals—is no accident. Right now the Brussels Capital Region is slowly drawing towards completing one of the most ambitious pro-pedestrian makeovers yet seen this century. Carried out on a scale only Madrid can really compete with, Brussels is systematically banishing anything but emergency and delivery vehicles from a large network of streets and squares that are not just central, but axial.

Generally referred to by its French name Le Piétonnier (the pedestrian zone), this area’s adaptation has been underway since 2015, and is due to be 70 percent complete by the end of 2019. This year already, ribs of paving stone have spread to cover the car lanes of central Place de Brouckère (viewable here on webcam), a busy crossroads that’s been dubbed the Times Square of Brussels (which, until the recent makeover, wasn’t much of a square at all). To its south, cars have been banished from Boulevard Anspach and its many cross streets (whose roadway remains fenced off in parts—hence the islands of calm), to make it a permanently friendly space to people, trees, and bikes.

Meanwhile, the square surrounding Brussels’ opulent stock exchange finally makes sense as a unified, car-free space. This vision, outlined in a slick video rendering below, is already ambitious—the video showcases a beguiling pedestrian boulevard laden with trees, green spaces, and cafes. Last month, however, the city upped the stakes further by promising to expand the pedestrian zone before it has even been completed.

Only a few years ago, it was a very different story. The streets in the Piétonnier were until recently routinely clogged with cars, and understandably so. These aren’t wriggling little narrow European lanes: Most streets that fit that description in Central Brussels are car-free already. These are broad, heroic boulevards that, in architecture and width, are not unlike those of Paris—thoroughfares that slash the city core in two as if built to attract rivers of thundering traffic. In a way, they were: Smashed through Brussels’ heart in the 1860s after the city’s by-then filthy River Senne was buried, the boulevards were intended to turn a fetid medieval maze into something modern and navigable.

That plan worked, for a while. But when automobiles arrived en masse, the boulevards’ role as the city’s open-air living room faded. With their wide sidewalks, the café terraces still managed to survive—this is still (mainly) Francophone Europe, after all. But traffic made the setting far less pleasant. The elegant Beaux-Arts facades reverberated with revving engines and screeching brakes, and Central Brussels was a grimy, mulchy aired place, far more attractive to drive through than to drive to.

Clearing this area of cars hasn’t been entirely smooth. Local businesses feared lost customers, while green activists saw the plan as a cop-out—banishing cars from the boulevards would only relocate them to a newly created “mini ring” just a few streets beyond, a micro-beltway around the Piétonnier that might even increase traffic in the area. So far, it seems that these fears have not been entirely unjustified. Stores lining the boulevards complain that they are struggling after being given little notice as to which sections of road are being closed for renovation and for how long.

Meanwhile the pollution picture is mixed. Conditions in the pedestrian zone have improved sharply, with a recorded 20 percent reduction in black carbon in the zone’s air. Some of that pollution has merely been displaced, however, with black carbon levels rising around the “mini-ring,” exactly as ecologists feared.

But the city’s reaction to this mixed picture is striking: Following a long public consultation, it seems Brussels residents aren’t having second thoughts about the schemethe city’s authorities just think it hasn’t gone far enough. According to a new mobility plan unveiled in April, Brussels plans to phase out the mini-ring altogether, requiring motor traffic to use the far broader (and already heavily congested) Petite Ceinture (“Little Belt”) beltway that lies a little further out, tracing the path of Brussels’ historic walls. Meanwhile, plans are proceeding for six more “pedestrian boulevards,” notably the Boulevard Adolphe Max whose transformation will extend the Piétonnier all the way out to the Petite Ceinture.

As pollution rises just outside the Piétonnier show, however, pushing cars further out without reducing their overall numbers simply isn’t enough. So Brussels is pushing for a further citywide modal shift, with a new mobility plan aiming for a 24 percent reduction in car use and a fourfold increase in cycling by 2030. To prevent outer neighborhoods from turning into commuter rat runs, it wants to create fifty low-speed zones where traffic speeds must not exceed 30 km/h (18.6 mph). Crucially, both the metro and the tram system will be extended to the north, so that commuters have more alternative options for getting into town.

These changes are sorely needed. Brussels has character and charm in spades, but it is still a frequently chaotic and polluted place, one that’s capable of skewering assumptions about the excellence of North European urban planning. If it finds a way to turn its transit system round to create a greener, cleaner and more pleasant environment, it could well, belatedly, become the international role model it deserves to be.

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