Brussels mobility minister on untangling the capital’s traffic snarl

Summary

We talk to Pascal Smet, who says he’s found the solution to Brussels’ ubiquitous traffic jams: give the city’s streets back to the people and make the infrastructure smarter

The time is now

It says a lot about Brussels traffic that, in a year of dramatic news stories, the issue that often dominates conversations in the capital is the state of the city’s roads. With incessant roadworks, blocked tunnels and some of the worst urban traffic in the world, Brussels has become a driving calamity.

But that is about to change, insists Pascal Smet, public works and mobility minister for the Brussels-Capital Region. “Until recently, the city made every accommodation for cars and did nothing for cyclists or pedestrians,” he says. “That is now changing.”

In a country awash with ministers, Smet has one of the toughest jobs, as he faces up to a legacy of under-investment in infrastructure and over-indulgence of driving. Although he is overseeing an ambitious overhaul of the city’s transport arrangements, the ongoing snarl-ups that continue to blight daily commutes mean he is a particular target of Brussels’ road rage.

According to an analysis by Inrix, a traffic data organisation, Brussels ranks fifth worst for traffic in Europe, with an estimated 71 hours spent in traffic in 2015. The findings from 2016 are expected to be worse.

City for people

This year has been particularly grim. After the roof of one of the tunnels was damaged by a lorry, Brussels authorities made some quick checks and discovered that the city’s entire tunnel system needed urgent repairs.

A parliamentary inquiry blamed a systematic failure to provide maintenance of roads, tunnels and viaducts over the years. Even now, the Stefania and Montgomery road tunnels are closed to repair cracks and corrosion in the reinforced concrete.

There is something in the DNA of Belgium that makes people feel that living in the countryside is better than living in the city

- Brussels mobility minister Pascal Smet

So Smet has a lot of explaining to do. Yet despite being the focus of intense ire, he is relaxed, upbeat even. “We can no longer be a city for cars. We must be a city for people,” he says over lunch at Beaucoup Fish, a trendy restaurant behind the KVS theatre in Brussels.

Smet, 48, is originally from Beveren in East Flanders. This is his second stint as Brussels mobility minister; his first, from 2004 to 2009, was followed by five years as Flemish Education Minister. “The issue here is a commuter problem,” he continues. “There is something in the DNA of Belgium that makes people feel that living in the countryside is better than living in the city.”

More cars, more jams

History has played a part in the current predicament: When Brussels hosted the 1958 World Expo, it provided the excuse for a radical overhaul of the city. Some 45 kilometres of new road surfaces were laid, 7.5km of tunnels dug, construction of the metro began, and Brussels Airport was built.

“The city was never designed for so many cars,” he says. “But in the name of modernity, in the last 50 years, the city opened itself up to them, with tunnels and highways that suck them in. And when you invite in all the cars in, they have to go somewhere. Cities that give more space to cars have more traffic jams.”

Of the 400,000 commuters coming to Brussels every day, 235,000 take their own car. “They are the traffic jam,” Smet says. “It is the choice of non-residents. Half the people who live in the city don’t even own a car. Only 35% of movement within the city is done by car.”

Other factors exacerbate the situation, he explains. A federal tax policy that supports people living in the countryside, thus reinforcing out-of-town commuters. Company cars are given lavish tax-breaks and are subsidised to an average €2,763, according to a study by the OECD policy institute.

The confusion of federal, regional and local authorities complicates decision-making; only now are the federal rail services co-ordinating with Brussels public transport operator MIVB, and the regional operators De Lijn and TEC. And there are obstacles delaying reasonable alternatives, like the repeated delays to the planned suburban rail service, Regional Express Network.

Work to be done

However, Smet says it is getting better. Two years ago, the Brussels-Capital Region was given an extra €5.2 billion to invest in transport over the next 10 years. The budget includes €1.6 billion for a north-south metro line and €750 million to renovate the tunnels.

Tramlines will be built from Simonis to Heizel and from Herman-Debroux to Rodebeek. Heizel will connect to the Flemish transport networks, and a new fleet of buses, trams and metros will be rolled out. Some 8,500 parking spaces will be built next to the metro stations on the outskirts of Brussels by 2020.

Officials are also working on smarter traffic management: Intelligent traffic lights will react on real-time data. Cameras will catch cars that block the road, especially the criss-crossed boxes painted at junctions.

We need something like Tinder for carpooling. We need a sexy application

- Pascal Smet

Smet talks enthusiastically about the Villo! self-service bicycle rental scheme, with 1.5 million uses last year, and the new car-sharing initiatives like Drive Now, Zencar and Zipcar. He is particularly hopeful about special lanes for car-poolers.

“In the past, it was difficult as you had to find people to come with you,” he says. “Today we have smart phones, and we need something like Tinder for carpooling. We need a sexy application.”

Amongst Smet’s urban plans are renovations to Schumanplein and Madouplein, turning Luxemburgplein into a pedestrian zone and closing Elsense Steenweg to cars during the day. When the viaduct over Auguste Reyerslaan is completely removed, he says, the road system will be redesigned, perhaps with a roundabout.

Smet also wants to send the inner ring traffic between Louizaplein and Naamsepoort underground. “It is supposed to be the most exclusive, beautiful shopping area in the city, but the public space is crap,” he says. “We have to give these spaces back to the people.”

He admits it may be another 10 years before this ambitious plan is realised. He has enough on his plate right now. “In the next three to four years, there will be a lot of work. We have to make the city better. Let’s do it now.”

Photo courtesy Pascal Smet

Traffic in Flanders

Thousands of commuters and foreigners pass through Brussels and Flanders each day, and the two regions have suffered from heavily congested traffic and long and frequent traffic jams for years – with no end seemingly in sight.
Record - According to the 2013 report from traffic information platform Inrix, Brussels and Antwerp have the most traffic congestion of any city in Europe and North America.
Calendar - October is the worst month of the year for traffic jams.
Causes - Year after year, heavy snowfall and railway strikes lead to monster traffic jams. Heavy congestion, infrastructure works and multi-lane accidents cause the more ordinary daily tailbacks.
1 285

largest area covered in traffic ever recorded in Belgium in kilometres

70

time Antwerp drivers spend in gridlock per year in hours

10 000

traffic diversions in Flanders per year