- Daily & Weekly newsletters
- Buy & download The Bulletin
- Comment on our articles
Brussels taxis mark 10 years of controversial colour scheme
Brussels taxis celebrate a milestone this month as the controversial black and yellow livery, which caused a storm of protests at the time, turns 10 years old.
While the black bodywork and mango yellow chequered strip had already been accepted as standard for cabs in many European cities when the design was introduced in Brussels in September 2011, no other capitals experienced such an uproar at its introduction. This is because in Brussels, the black and yellow colour choices – those which also adorn the flag of Flanders – came with regional baggage that led to a heated debate.
The taxi sector has been a headache for every mobility minister ever since the Brussels-Capital region was created in 1989. Consecutive politicians in the role have faced challenges ranging from licences, quality of service, driver training, and the visual identity of the vehicles, all while trying to uphold the notion that the taxis were a representation of a united region.
The issues surrounding the colour scheme started back in 2000 when the mobility minister at the time, Willem Draps, first imposed black cabs on the city’s operators. Pascal Smet, his successor, decided on adding yellow to the design eight years later. At the time, Smet said: "The colours are a nod to Barcelona, another cradle of art nouveau in Europe."
However, others were not convinced of his reasoning, choosing instead to suspect that the Dutch-speaking Smet was trying to impose the colours of Flanders on the capital’s taxis. Smet refuted these claims, saying that the colour was not even the yellow of the Flanders flag but a “yellow-orange mango” and that the colour scheme had no allegiances attached, except the one for the Brussels-Capital region and the desire to have the cars recognised as a symbol of the city.
The taxi sector baulked at the plan and rejected the colour scheme, saying that the yellow was too prevalent and that it made it difficult for drivers whose taxi is also their private vehicle. The plan was therefore put on ice to become an issue for the next regional government to sort out.
When Brigitte Grouwels became transport minister in 2009, the cementing of a visual identity for the taxi sector, like her predecessors, loomed large on her to-do list. She proposed a deal to the taxi firms: in exchange for an increase in fares, better training for drivers, and stronger measures against pirate firms coming into the city, the companies would need to accept yellow checkerboards on the wings of the cars.
The debate raged on through 2010 and into early 2011 with the same criticisms aimed at Pascal Smet being thrown at Grouwels. By this time, the sector had split into two sides: pro- and anti-reform. Demonstrations for both arguments took place and during one, in October 2010, Grouwels was confronted by angry drivers outside Brussels-Central station.
During another protest, which took place outside the offices of the transport ministry, one driver declared: "I cannot accept that the colours of nationalist Flanders are imposed on me here in Brussels. Yellow and black, it's nationalist! Brigitte Grouwels tells us it's mango! Mango is still yellow."
In the Brussels parliament, opposition to the colour scheme began to rise. Some French-speaking politicians started to take their private suspicions public, denouncing what they called the “community provocation” of the black and yellow design and calling for the plan to be scrapped. One MP, the liberal-regionalist Didier Gosuin, said that the colour scheme was “shocking” in its symbolism and claimed that it was quite clearly “not neutral” as supporters of the plan said.
The Reformist Movement (MR) in Brussels added its own criticism. "We are obviously not against the principle of a visual identity for Brussels taxis, but removing the one that already exists on taxis, namely the blue and yellow which are the colours of the Region and also those of Europe and forcing taxi drivers to take up the black and yellow is an aberration,” one MR politician stated at the time. “In Belgium, colours have a meaning. Yellow and black are the colours of Flanders, not those of the Brussels region."
Grouwels faltered but, in the end, she did not bend. In September, the proposed design was introduced, and the defeated opponents of the plan were left to lick their wounds in private.
A decade on, no one – or almost no one – criticises the taxis’ colours scheme anymore. Some opponents from the early days of the debate now admit they were wrong. "We were opposed at the beginning,” said Khalid Ed Denguir, the president of the Belgian Federation of Taxi Drivers. “The aim was to differentiate Brussels taxis from vehicles coming into the city from other parts of the country. It was a very good idea in hindsight."
"At the time, we were not used to this visual identity. It was a first in Belgium. And then there were those vehicle owners who used them privately, to go on holiday. We knew that for the sake of safety for customers, the minister wanted customers to be able to identify taxis in Brussels. In the end, it was a good thing."
Raymond, a Brussels taxi driver since 2006, agrees. "Before, we had cars of all colours: black, white, I even saw burgundy taxis. The checkerboard was a good decision, for the identity of the taxi, to make the cars visible. Pascal Smet's project, with all that yellow, we didn't want it. The checkerboard is a better idea. We are easily identifiable, and customers can stop us, without worry."
Sam Bouchal, from the Brussels Taxi Federation, was one of those who did not oppose the introduction of yellow checkerboards on a black background in 2011. "The visual identity of a taxi is also the identity of a city. Who can imagine New York without its yellow taxis? It is now the same in Brussels. When Pascal Smet's plans were submitted, we were in favour but not entirely. With Brigitte Grouwels' proposal, the project was more reasonable. The taxi, with its checkerboard and identification number is identifiable at first glance."
"At the time, the fight was fought mainly for ideological reasons, with these colours considered too Flemish,” Bouchal added. “So, yes, we could have imposed other colours. But here, black and checkerboard, it's a good compromise. It's discreet. The checkerboard can be magnetised and removed. So, it’s all good for those whose taxi is also their private vehicle."
"Maybe we could have had the blue and yellow of the Brussels region, but I think it would have made many cringe because it's much less discreet. What I see in any case is that the design adopted here in Brussels have inspired other cities such as Antwerp."
So, the controversial colour scheme can now enjoy its 10th birthday in relative peace. But will it one day be necessary to reform it again, to meet other demands and changes in identity perception? Khalid Ed-Denguir thinks so. "I proposed that the yellow be replaced by a turquoise green, like the one adopted by the regional administration for mobility. It would seem more consistent to us."
Expect a new proposal and perhaps another chapter in the taxi saga to follow.