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Breathe easy: What can be done to improve air quality in Brussels?
Every week, children across the city take to the streets in protest, a mother-ofthree steps out on to her balcony to measure the air quality which she posts on her blog, and a host of environmental activists prepare for their next campaign. They are all calling for healthier air in their city. But this isn’t Beijing or Kathmandu, cities famous for their smog problems. This is Brussels.
According to the latest data on the World Health Organization’s interactive map of global air pollution, the finest (and arguably the most damaging) particulate matter had an average concentration of just under 60 micrograms per cubic metre in the centre of Brussels. That’s almost six times the WHO’s recommended maximum.
Millions of people around the world are dying from air pollution due primarily to pulmonary disease, strokes and lung cancer. Only one in 10 people lives somewhere where the air quality is in accordance with WHO standards and, though deaths are more prevalent in low-income countries, the city of Brussels stands out against its European peers. In Belgium as a whole, 12,000 people die prematurely every year because of poor air quality.
“The quality of the air is really bad. For children, it’s especially dangerous. If the water was this polluted, everyone would say it’s unacceptable,” says Annekatrien Verdikt, spokesperson for Filter Café Filtre, which organises the school protests. And the political momentum is there too. “Without any doubt, our air quality is bad,” says Brussels mobility minister Pascal Smet. “The figures show that kids in Brussels have higher levels of respiratory disease than in the rest of Belgium.”
Lack of alternatives
A study of 13 European cities commissioned by Greenpeace shows that some 43% of journeys across Brussels are made by car, resulting in vast amounts of particulate matter entering the atmosphere, not to mention climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions. Only Rome is ranked worse. It’s not just city residents contributing to the poor air quality; about 175,000 people travel into the city each day by car. As well as the Belgians’ love affair with their vehicles – employers get huge tax breaks for issuing staff with company cars – experts blame the lack of alternatives for those who would be prepared to cycle or take public transport, having made the connection between air quality, their health and their mobility choices.
“Brussels still has a long way to go when you compare it to other cities in Europe. The presence of the car is still too big. That’s the basis of all the other problems,” says Joeri Thijs, air quality campaigner at Greenpeace, adding: “The percentage of cyclists is so low. It’s not safe enough to cycle in the city in terms of infrastructure and bringing the number of cars down on the road. As for public transport, it’s OK in the inner city but in the pentagon – the area inside the ring road – you often need to change two or three times.”
The big question is why Brussels lags behind other European cities if the solutions are so clear – better cycling infrastructure, more public transport links, restrictions on car use – and given that other cities have managed to make the switch. It’s a typical problem in Belgium because of the political system with its federal, regional and municipal layers of decision-making. “The political landscape is fragmented compared to, say, London where there is one mayor with a plan,” says Thijs. He warns, however, that while the fragmentation clearly has an effect – witness the numerous occasions when municipalities have blocked plans for cycle lanes – it’s crucial that politicians press ahead. “Often it’s used as an excuse for a standstill. Our message is ‘Get over the standstill’.”
In May, the Brussels regional government agreed a plan to cut the number of diesel-fuelled cars entering the city. There’s already a low-emission zone that prohibits the filthiest of cars but as of 2025, all diesels will be banned from the streets of Brussels except for the newest standard. All combustion-based vehicles will be banned from 2035.
'We can't take people's cars away'
The government has also ploughed €5.2 billion into developing public transport in the city. Tram and metro lines will be extended and more buses will be put on the streets. All new buses will be hybrid and by 2030, the whole fleet will be electric. The urban rail network should also function better. Brussels has the second densest city rail network in the world, after Tokyo.
“Of course, the ideal would be a full diesel ban immediately,” says Smet. “But we have to build support and we can’t take people’s cars away from one day to the next. We also don’t want to see people switch to petrol cars.” The government has given the green light to a project to construct more charging points for electric vehicles around the city and the hope is that people will switch to those.
Among other initiatives, politicians are trying to encourage car-sharing for people who drive in from outside the city and there are plans to build more park-and-ride spots around the periphery. In Anderlecht, there are now 1,500 places. The target is to build one a year.
There’s also something in the psyche that needs to change, according to experts. Studies show that most journeys within the inner city would be faster by foot than by car and that journeys from the suburbs to the inner city are faster by bike than by car. “We are asking people to try it. Try it even once a week,” says Smet. And for those who are campaigning? He doesn’t want them to stop. In fact, he wants more people to campaign. “Continue protesting. We need to build support on this. As for the schools, make it visible.”