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.
The city's car-free zone, as it is currently designed, will only displace traffic, not reduce it.
When Brussels announced plans to pedestrianize a big chunk of its downtown last year, many people were thrilled. Beset with congestion problems, Belgium's capital can sometimes be a grimy, gridlocked mess. Supporters hoped that booting cars off the city's main boulevard axis could make the urban center a greener, cleaner, and more pleasant place to be. Fast-forward a year, however, and the plans have proven far more controversial than expected. The most vocal critics are not just car lobbyists and local businesses, but also pedestrian and cycling advocates. That's because these plans raise a question all pedestrianization must grapple with: It's all very well clearing cars off a few streets, but what happens in the city outside the designated zone?
Brussels' answer is disappointing. In fact, it sounds like it came from another decade entirely. The new pedestrian zone may double the center's car-free area, but as this image shows, it will be bounded by a circular road system that critics say will be a "mini ring", an inner alternative to the already snarled, poorly-planned beltway around the city center. As Brussels city blogger Laurent Vermeersch notes, the plan could transform "quiet residential streets into busy roads with two lanes of traffic in one direction." Vermeersch cites a local environmental organization's disapproval. "It will be a pedestrian area for car drivers," the organization said.
It gets worse. The city is also fielding plans to build four new subterranean parking lots just outside the pedestrian zone. One of these might be under the lovely Place du Jeu du Balle, an old square in a largely working class area that hosts the Brussels flea market. Not only would funneling cars into this area risk disrupting the market, it would threaten quality of life in Marolles, one the most densely populated and likable neighborhoods in inner Brussels—the sort of area pedestrian zones are set up to protect. Urbanism blogger Kwinten Lambrecht also points out that building the new garages could ensure that car dominance continues for decades. If the city is to recoup the construction costs, after all, it will need to ensure a steady stream of cars using the parking lots for some time to come.
What makes this plan yet more short-sighted is that it comes just as the Brussels Region (a different body from the city) is planning 10,000 new park-and-ride places at suburban transit terminuses as a way of encouraging locals not to drive into town. If the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, it doesn't really seem to care.
To be fair to the city, none of this is a done deal. The plan is currently undergoing a public consultation before it can be implemented. Still, Brussels' struggle highlights the impasse that pedestrianization can bring. Banishing cars from an area is one thing, but if you don't take steps to reduce motor vehicles across a city as a whole, then you're not solving a problem. You're just exporting it.
Brussels may be under intense pressure to please pedestrian, motor and business lobbies all at once—but when residents are rejecting your pedestrian plan because they think it will damage the very element it was supposed to enhance, you know you've taken a false step.
Top image via CC License.