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 tongue-in-cheek effort reflects a real problem with the country’s transportation networks.
Belgium has a new candidate for receiving UNESCO world heritage status: its traffic jams. Supporters of the idea insist that the country’s car-clogged roads that deserve celebration as achievements as uniquely, specially Belgian as its already listed belfries, art nouveau mansions, and historic mines.
That, at least, is the tongue-in-cheek claim being made by a spoof ad currently doing the rounds. The video features a pompous British actor extolling the splendor of Belgian congestion followed by a link to a petition. Its wholesale trolling of the country’s packed road system comes from exactly the source you might expect—it’s essentially an attack ad from Belgian national rail company NMBS.
The video may be meant as a joke, but the problem it describes is real enough. In 2014, Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, both had the worst traffic congestion of any cities in Europe—a place they earned thanks to a toxic combination (well outlined in this piece) of poor road planning, suburbanization, and generous company car policies. It’s no wonder the country’s railways want to poke fun at the whole mess.
The snag is that Belgium’s railways are themselves part of the problem. Belgian trains are notorious for delays and overcrowding—the sort of poor conditions that have people running for their cars in the first place. As a result, the railways are getting a taste of their own medicine. A counter-petition is also doing the rounds calling for Belgium’s train delays to get UNESCO world heritage status, too—showing footage of delayed passengers soundtracked with lush, tear-jerking strings.
If anything comes out of the spat, it’s that Belgians really seem to suck at transportation. The two campaigns do nonetheless reveal a talent for which Belgians are arguably world leaders: self-deprecation. Belgium is, after all, a country whose greatest recent Internet hit has been Ugly Belgian Houses, a tumblr and Instagram celebration of its domestic architecture’s monumental fugliness. Even the best-known, most poetic song about the country—local boy Jacques Brel’s “Le Plat Pays”—describes it as having “a sky so grey you have to forgive it.”
Looking at this cultural outpouring, you could easily forget that grey, rainy Belgium is often a rather beautiful and strangely interesting place. If only Belgians could somehow channel this remarkable talent for taking themselves down a peg into sorting out their transit, they’d probably be leading the world.