Death threats won’t stop Elke Van Den Brandt from freeing Brussels from traffic jams

“Brussels has been one of the most congested cities in Europe for decades,” the city-region’s mobility minister told me from her 13th-floor office overlooking the Belgian capital.

“Traffic jams here are nothing new,” added the green politician.

“If you do nothing, [the jams] will stay.”

Elke Van den Brandt is Minister of Mobility, Public Works and Road Safety of Brussels since 2019.

The Greens performed well in regional, national and European elections that year, and the bloc forms the second largest party in the Brussels provincial government, just behind the traditionally dominant Socialists.

The city government Good Move mobility plan was introduced in 2016 by Pascal Smet, Secretary of State for Urbanism. The project aims to reduce car traffic by nearly 25% and improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

The current plan, valid until 2030, is now led by Van den Brandt.

“The focus of this mobility plan is not just about transportation,” she told the hour-long meeting.

“It’s about the quality of life and the quality of public space. If you want to do something for the quality of life in Brussels and to make the city more attractive for visitors and the people who live and work there, then we have to change our mobility habits.

She complained that 70% of public space is currently occupied by car traffic, including roads and parking, amounting to what she called an “occupancy”.

“We have to change that,” she said.

“Public space should feel like home; you should feel welcome and safe. We have therefore divided Brussels into 30 zones and in each zone we have a traffic plan with the objective that local traffic can still enter and leave. Sometimes you will need to take a small detour, but you should discourage passing motorists who want to save a minute or two or avoid certain traffic lights. Automobile traffic must be channeled on the main roads intended for it; in residential areas, you only want light traffic and slow traffic.

friendly people

Until the early 1990s, motorists could drive through the medieval streets of the city center and park their cars in the historic Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that the 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo called the ” most beautiful place in the world.

With cars being people’s favorite since the 1950s, it was far from a nice place. Today, the square is once again crowded with people, as cars are no longer allowed near it.

“Nobody wants to go back and allow cars to come back into the center,” said the Minister of Mobility, who wants to increase space for cyclists and pedestrians and reduce space for motorists, and not only in the historic heart.

Brussels is the administrative center of the European Union, with many of the European institutions housed in buildings lining the Rue de la Loi highway that runs through the European quarter.

This one-way highway is a major artery in the city and has long suffered from chronic traffic congestion.

“It is important to emphasize that the congestion is caused by cars and not by bicycles,” said Van den Brandt.

“Rue de la Loi, an emblematic artery in front of the European institutions, previously had four lanes reserved for cars, we took one and gave it to cyclists. We tell motorists that cyclists are your allies because not everyone on that bike is with you in traffic; they don’t take your parking space; giving space to cyclists makes sense.

It might make sense to her and those who voted for her, but Van den Brandt has faced heavy criticism for implementing many parts of the Good Move plan.

“We receive death threats and there are aggressive Facebook groups against what we do. It’s because you’re changing something that affects everyone on a daily basis; everyone is affected by mobility.

She emphasizes that she is not anti-car.

“Some people really need their car. If you have to get to work at three in the morning, Brussels public transport is not for you. But for many journeys, the car is not the best solution. You are faster by bike and by metro. Driving is not good for you; walking and cycling are good for mental and physical health.

Company cars

One of the reasons why many people in Belgium remain committed to car use is that, thanks to federal tax policy, they get a car as part of their employment contract. Fuel is also often free. The use of the company car is endemic throughout Belgium, including in the capital.

“If someone has free gas, they have a free parking space in front of their house and another in their place of work, how can you convince them to say ‘oh, no, I’ll take the train?’ asked the minister.

“Giving a car costs less [for some employers] than paying people in euros. It is a political question. You have to make sure that if people get paid, they get paid in euros, not paid partly with a car. The federal government encourages the use of the car, encourages traffic jams; we have to change this system.

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When Van den Brandt opposes the national tax policy favoring the provision of company cars for middle managers, she is accused of wanting to reduce people’s salaries.

She is accused of the same in working-class neighborhoods where car ownership is much lower but where opposition to “anti-car” measures has been violent. Council meetings in Cureghem, part of the Anderlecht commune less than a kilometer from central Brussels, were marred by violent outbursts this summer by protesters angry at the introduction of low-traffic zones .

“It was not a happy time,” underestimated Van den Brandt, still shocked that the deputy mayor of the town had to be escorted by the police to guarantee his safety.

“People disfigured themselves [the Good Move] road signs. Decorative planters used to close some roads were also demolished. We had to replace them with concrete blocks which are not so sexy. From day one, the plan was sabotaged. The police did not defend the measures.

Many concrete blocks were washed away in the middle of the night and some were placed on the bike lanes instead.

Brussels MP Juan Benjumea-Moreno slammed into one of the concrete blocks on his bicycle in the dark, claiming he had been dragged onto the cycle path to cause injury. (His fall resulted in bruises, scratches and a chipped tooth, he tweeted, calling the vandalism “super dangerous.”)

The protests worked; roads that had been closed to motorists but remained open to pedestrians and cyclists were reopened to motorists. The territory circulation plan, inaugurated in August, was suspended by the leaders of Anderlecht in September.

“When you tolerate violence, it’s something that will happen again elsewhere,” Van den Brandt said.

Cureghem is a disadvantaged multicultural neighborhood with many social problems.

“It’s a place where Good Move is most needed,” the minister said.

“The houses are small; many people live in each house, there are few gardens and little public space. The area needs more green spaces and playgrounds, but it is dominated by car traffic. We need to better explain why traffic plans make life better.