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Shaping a city: Brussels mobility and public works minister Pascal Smet shares his vision for the capital
As one of the more colourful characters in local political life, Pascal Smet is an energetic and outspoken critic of the city he chooses to call home. Ahead of The Bulletin event Brussels Moves! on 26 April, we met the Brussels minister in his 12th-floor office, where he enjoys an unparalleled panorama of Brussels’ northern suburbs.
Our first topic is inevitably the roadworks that afflict the city, and the criticism levelled at Smet that he is worsening congestion. “Some people are angry because they think we are inefficient, advancing too slowly, but it’s a slow process,” he says. “We are fighting to transform Brussels from a city for cars to a city for people. That’s a big battle, but we’re winning it.”
He cites the tunnel renovations that are either already completed – like Montgomery and Stéphanie – or scheduled to finish at the end of this year, such as Porte de Hal and Reyers. Meanwhile, work on the Leopold II tunnel is due to start in May. “It will close in the summer and during the night. We are talking to public transport operators to alleviate the traffic situation, but it is complicated,” he concedes. There’s some comfort in the fact there’s an upside to roadworks known as ‘evaporating traffic’. “It’s a phenomenon affecting 30-40% of drivers who drive out of habit and then realise there are other possibilities. We have to change people’s routine. When there are 20% fewer cars, there are no more traffic jams in the city.”
Fixing past errors
Delays over the definitive refurbishing of the Reyers Boulevard are among the more contentious issues. Smet defends the decision to demolish the viaduct in 2015. “It was symbolic because it was an urbanistic error of the past. From a mobility point of view, it was not necessary. Today, even with all the diversions, there are fewer cars.” As for the setbacks, he refers to the difficulties civil engineers encountered in repairing “one of the worst tunnels in Brussels”. It’s a tight schedule but he expects the new urban boulevard to open in summer next year, complete with trees, pavements and bike lanes.
Another costly and complicated project is the earmarked destruction of the Herrmann-Debroux viaduct. “There’s political consensus for its demolition, but a more ideal solution is that we add an extra stop on the metro, at Adeps or at the Red Cross,” he says. In the meantime, it will stay open to ensure circulation in and out of the city.
A €24 million investment programme is designated for the maintenance and repair of bridges and viaducts over the next four years. Smet counts on constructing six new bridges and walkways (some are joint federal projects) that will connect the two sides of the canal in the city centre and improve links to the metro and tram. Among other projects in the pipeline this year is the new tram 9 between Simonis and Heysel. “Place de Miroir in Jette will become completely car-free, with underground parking; it’ll be a convivial square where people can meet, like Rogier and Flagey,” says Smet. And by autumn, tram 94 will extend along Boulevard de Woluwe to Roodebeek.
April sees the arrival of electric buses, connecting the Louise area with Dansaert, while the city takes delivery of 235 new buses in the autumn, half of them replacing the old polluting ones, the other half creating new bus lines and increasing the frequency of existing lines.
Smet is excited about the urban makeover projects in his portfolio. “Finishing the work in Chaussée d’Ixelles in the summer will be a major achievement,” he says. Work is also due to start this year on Place Fernand Cocq, making it an intimate pedestrianised square. Of course, pedestrianisation is a sore spot for many in Brussels, with mixed reactions to the 2015 pedestrianisation of the area around the Bourse. “I was one of the founding fathers, but the way they dealt with it was not good. I warned them, you should redesign first. There was no real debate with the people,” he says. The Ixelles project is on a completely different footing, he insists: “We started from zero, organised meetings and working groups, involving people in a participative process; when we didn’t always follow people’s views, we explained why.” There was also a good working relationship with the municipality of Ixelles.
Tidying up Schuman
Smet also has Schuman in his sights as another vision of a people-friendly public space. “It’s Brussels’ calling card, one of the most filmed squares in the world, and one of the ugliest.” He is seeking planning permission so that work can start in 2019.
Humming in the background as we talk is the sound of the thousands of cars that are blamed for Brussels’ congestion. The mobility ministry has a plan for 8,000 park-and-ride places in various places on the edge of the city, including Anderlecht, Stalle and Heysel. The construction worst for the new park-and-ride in Anderlecht started in January. Smet accepts that some people will always need a car but says: “Many have a viable alternative. Half of all journeys in the city are for a distance of less than 5km, which means they can be done by bike. We have to ask people to think twice before making a journey; if you have an alternative, use it. It’s a question of solidarity and quality of life.”
To motorists who ask for better transport infrastructure first, he says: “When you start to make the alternatives like bike lanes or tram lines, they always say ‘don’t touch the space for cars’.” Practising what he preaches, Smet lives in the city centre and likes to cycle. “You can bike very safely in the centre and you don’t always need bike lanes,” he says. But he is proud of ‘symbolic’ bike lane projects, especially along Avenue Roosevelt alongside the Bois de la Cambre, which is due to finish this year. “I was personally attacked and they tried to get rid of the project, but now people are seeing that it’s good.” Separate bike lanes along the inner ring will also open this year. “For the first time in Brussels we are going to take space away from cars and give it back to cyclists and pedestrians. The more space you give to a car, the more cars you will get; the more space you give to pedestrians and cyclists, the more pedestrians and cyclists you will get.”
'We subsidise traffic jams'
And Smet goes further in targeting motorists. “In Belgium we subsidise traffic jams and air pollution as an estimated 175,000 commuters come to Brussels by car every day, the majority of them because their car and fuel are paid for by their companies. It is often cheaper to do so than to provide extra salary. In total the scheme costs about €4 billion each year of tax payers money. Imagine the change we could bring about if we could invest that in more sustainable ways of transport or a policy that stimulates living close to work?”
Even so, motorists shouldn’t expect an immediate alleviation to congestion. “In 2018, there will be a lot of public works delivered, but we also have to start new ones because we are a city ‘en retard’.” Smet is determined to speed up the process. “Brussels is a slow city due to its 19 municipalities and region; people are not speaking with one voice. That’s one reason why I need One Brussels [a plan to unify the city’s local and regional governments].” He believes improving financial efficiency could be a driving factor to bring about change – and possibly within 10 years. “If you take the public budget of 19 communes and the region and round it up you are close to €9.4 billion. The budget of a city like Madrid is €7 billion.”
How does he view the international aspect of the city? “I feel that life in the EU bubble is changing, that people are embracing Brussels, they want to get more involved.” That’s one reason he is calling on the urban expertise of the international community and a younger generation of Brussels citizens to voice their opinion. “Let’s give voting rights to European Union citizens. We need their love for this city,” he says.
His personal motivation is simple. “I choose to live in Brussels; I see the beauty of the city and ugliness of the city, but I also see its potential. One of the reasons I am so loving this portfolio – despite its complications – is that you can design the shape of the city.” And he is philosophical about any public criticism. “I like to be a politician who works for the long term. In the short term, I may be attacked a lot, but one thing I’ve learned is that when you want to resolve problems, you get into trouble. Society gave me a lot, so I want to give it back to society. I accept it as part of the game.”
When: Thursday 26 April, 19.00-21.30
Where: KBC Group, Avenue du Port 2, 1080 Brussels (metro Yser)
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- Join in the debate and fill in our survey on life in the city, including public transport and voting rights
This article first appeared in The Bulletin spring edition 2018Photo: Jon Verhoeft