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Get around like a local: What's it like to travel by bike and scooter in Brussels?
There’s no doubt that for city-dwellers, bikes and electric scooters offer numerous benefits over the car in terms of convenience, health and environmental concerns. But how does Brussels fare when it comes to integrating these alternative forms of transport into its road network? We speak to four expats about life in the capital from their two-wheeled vantage point.
Matthies Verstegen cycles in his daily life as much as possible. “It’s by far the fastest, cheapest and healthiest way to get around,” he says. “But I cycle in spite of the Brussels road system, not because of it.” For him, more needs to be done in the city for cyclists. “There needs to be more separate lanes for bikes on the main routes, ideally physically segregated. Painting loads of bike symbols on existing narrow roads is a fake solution,” he says.
Verstegen’s home country, the Netherlands, is seen as a world leader when it comes to cycling infrastructure. But he points out that it also faced challenges at the beginning. “Until the 1970s, the Netherlands had exactly the same problems as Brussels has today. Then the decision was taken to improve infrastructure by introducing segregated cycling lanes – not overnight but one street at a time. That led to a spectacular increase in cycling and a subsequent change in mentality. I am convinced we can do the same in Brussels.”
There’s also a health payoff for those who choose to take the bike over the car, of course: “Doing 20 kilometres a day with a few punchy hills, I don’t need to feel guilty about having an evening snack!”
'The Nordic way'
For Lauha Fried from Finland (pictured top), cycling has always been a way of life. “Cycling in Brussels is a no-brainer: it’s the quickest and easiest way to move around in the city. I have two kids and used to take them to school daily with my bike when they were younger. I wanted to teach them the Nordic way – getting some exercise before sitting all day behind our desks,” she says.
However, the biggest motivator for her is the climate. “Congestion is a massive problem here,” she says. “One big challenge is companies still giving car benefits to employees; this is one reason for heavy traffic in Brussels. Luckily this is slowly changing and smart, future-oriented companies are starting to swap car benefits for e-bike or bicycle benefits.”
She even goes one step further and envisages an EU quarter without cars, with a utopian strategy for how it could play out in Brussels. “Some parts of it could be covered, and policymakers could show an example to the rest of Europe and the world by travelling from one meeting to another using bicycles, e-bikes and scooters,” she says.
For those who haven’t braved cycling in the capital, Fried urges them to give it a try. “It’s relatively easy to find alternative little roads,” she says. “The first couple of times might be a bit scary until you find your way and start enjoying it.” She also underlines the importance of road safety. “It’s very important to follow the rules, increasingly so now that we have a lot more action on the streets in Brussels with new scooters, e-bikes and cyclists. Cyclists complain about cars and drivers but shouldn’t forget to show an example by respecting pedestrians and other riders and drivers themselves.”
One less vehicle
Wayne Pettit, a British plumber in Brussels for the past 18 years, bought an electric bike to visit customers in need of a quotation. "There's the eco thing of one less vehicle on the road," he says. "The second thing is ease of getting around. I get around in peak hours quicker on the bike than I can in the van and parking is never an issue. And there's a bit of fitness involved. A lot of communes now are restricting speeds to 30kph - so it's going to be safer to use because of that."
He says customers are happy to see him turn up on a bike instead of in the van: "It's definitely the way forward. It's been a positive experience and people have responded to it well. Everybody in Brussels understands that the traffic can be too heavy and parking too difficult. There's a lot more bike lanes now than there were. The main arteries generally have bike lanes. What's very important is that as a cyclist, I behave like the rest of the traffic - I don't jump red lights and take those sort of risks. If you read the road correctly, generally you're OK."
Elena Kallea from Greece discovered one of the shared electric scooter systems three months ago and has fast become a convert. “I was hesitating in the beginning, but then I tried it and I found it very convenient. It’s everywhere and it’s cheap,” she says. “The bus passes my house every ten minutes and I can find a scooter in less than ten seconds, so I use that instead. The price is the same.”
Kallea says she feels safe “I ride on the road, especially when there’s a bike lane. I feel very comfortable because I think the other drivers really respect me as much as a motorcycle or bicycle that also drives on the road,” she says. “After my first month of using it I discovered it was very important to have a helmet. I feel much more confident now. And maybe it’s time for me to buy a yellow jacket so I can be visible at night. If you’re going to drive on the road I think it’s important to respect the rules.”
For her, personal safety is also a factor in using scooters, especially after a night out. “I feel that it’s safer than walking. I feel like no one can hurt me or catcall me in the street. So for me as a girl, I do enjoy going back home with a scooter, it makes me feel safe,” she says.
There is definitely a future for electric scooters on the city’s streets, she believes. “If you have the right equipment and are respectful to others, you have a right to be on the road as well. It’s no different to a bicycle or a motorcycle or an electric bike, for me,” she says. “Maybe Brussels is facing something new, with scooters and electric bikes everywhere, but they have to start working on that, make more bicycle lanes, make the city more alternative-transport friendly.”
Top photo: Eric Danhier/visit.brussels