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Brussels' mobility minister on improving the capital's traffic

00:00 08/08/2016
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

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 Stéphanie and Montgomery road tunnels are closed to repair cracks and corrosion in the reinforced concrete.

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.

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 Stib, 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 Heysel and from Hermann-Debroux to Roodebeek. Heysel 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.

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 Place Schuman and Madou, turning Place du Luxembourg into a pedestrian zone and closing Chaussée d'Ixelles to cars during the day. When the viaduct over Boulevard Auguste Reyers 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 Place Louise and Porte de Namur 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

Written by Leo Cendrowicz


Graham Edwards

Ideas and hot air are cheap with this fella but first actually completing projects (canal bridge at Comte de Flandre still missing after 6 years!) and re-thinking Brussels mobility for ALL Brussels residents and businesses, instead of for the benefit of non-Brussels-resident tourists and commuters still seems to be a concept too complicated for him. Ever heard of the London Congestion Charge Mr. Smet? Brussels is ideally configured, with two ring roads, to facilitate this idea.

Aug 8, 2016 13:58

Things would be so much better if you could rely on public transport. I know there are timetables but they are like fairy tales. You just have to wait around and hope that at some point a tram or a metro will eventually turn up!! If the Mobility Minister is serious about making the city better to get around in, then having public transport that actually works to a schedule would be good. It is no good saying STIB are getting new trams etc., if you can't rely on them.

Aug 8, 2016 14:31

The main problem is a lack of imagination and a total refusal by the various authorities to cooperate in the national interest.

A city like Brussels ought to have a much more developed metro system. Just look at Munich, for instance, to get an idea of what Brussels ought to be.

And then there is the absurdity of a ring which is not complete and apparently will NEVER be completed. Why? Oh apparently some dispute with the between the Communities which is un-resolvable. We should stop calling it the Ring and call it the Horseshoe....

And then, just look at the 71 line fiasco. Big roll-out of some grandiose scheme to replace a severely overcrowded bus with a tram - except that the Ch. d'Ixelles cannot accommodate a tram - it's not wide enough. Whoops - maybe we should've checked first?

And then of course there's the on-going saga of the tunnels. A year on, and it's still not resolved. Does anyone actually have an end date? No, it's sometime in the future....

Oh, and the Reyers overpass? What a joke. The €2 million renovation turned out to cost €4 million on closer inspection - so it was scrapped. Instead, they're spending €27 million to remove it and do (maybe?) a roundabout....

You just could not make up the incompetence and incontinence of these mobility people. You would not last 10 days in a real city where there is accountability and residents have expectations of real improvements.

In Belgium, they get re-appointed to the same job!


Aug 10, 2016 01:04

Totally agree Gellis. Tunnels are closed yet rarely is anyone working on them. Why not 24 hour round the clock work (weekends included) so traffic is not a total mess. Why should there not be any work done in the summer????? Coming off the Ring Road at Groenendael they have closed the entrance towards Boitsfort with a skimpy childlike unprofessional metal fence with NO signs saying where people should go or when the work will be completed. Tunnels just get closed with no indication of when they will be re-opened. Congestion charge needed, CCTV cameras at all big intersections and ALL fined if caught blocking traffic/tram, and when work is begun there should be constant workmen and not a languishing mess for months and years on end. Pathetic. No one is EVER held accountable. The citizen pays with traffic and time lost.

Aug 11, 2016 10:23

Back in the 2000s I attended a conference in Athens. One of the subjects was city planning. One of the presenters used the word "gigantism" to describe how most authorities address a problem: "build more" - sick people? build more hospitals, transport problems - build more. This is the approach being used by the minister & supported by many of the commentators. It does not work.

Most commuters come to the city to sit at a desk with a computer & phone. Various projects (Amsterdam) have shown that communal telework centres could be used to reduce the need for travel. So for example, people could work in such locations one or two days per week. This would mean (if 100% of people travelling did it) a possible 20 to 40% reduction in traffic. Brussels transport problems are a national problem - but there appears to be an unwillingness to address it at a national level. Mr Smet means well and is doing well - but what he is doing is addressing symptoms, not causes. The telework approach would cost much less than any transport project & would have a much faster impact - because it addresses causes - the need to travel.

Aug 14, 2016 10:09