The authorities bet on its use for environmental reasons. The pandemic accelerated the trend. There are fewer cars now. But there are complaints.
Belgium is a cycling country. From Eddy Merckx to Wout Van Aert, Belgians have won hundreds of cycling races in recent decades. The roads of the country are full of racing bicycles every weekend and classic races as emblematic as the Tour of Flanders or the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, summits of competitive cycling, are organized.
Its capital, Brussels, was hell for bikes until a few years ago. There were hardly any special lanes, the cars did not respect them, and it was rare to see a day when there were no accidents. Taking to the streets with a bicycle was a risky sport.
Five years ago it began to change and the pandemic gave the city another air. Fearful of contagion on public transport, people began to move more by bike.
The arrival in 2019 to the regional government (which has Mobility powers) of a coalition in which the environmentalists obtained precisely that portfolio, changed the face of the city.
The bike lane revolution
Since then dozens of kilometers of bike lanes were built. Streets such as Rue de La Loi, which connects the city center with the neighborhood of the European institutions, went from five to three lanes for cars to make room for bikes.
there were protests because it was alleged that traffic in an already congested city was going to get worse, but the years that have passed since then have proved the politicians right.
Traffic counters show that the number of cars moving through the city decreases while the number of bicycles increases exponentially. Every year that number doubles.
Citizens use the bicycle for more and more things, from going to the supermarket to taking the children to school. Almost 20% of Brussels commuters go to work by bike. Companies are beginning to realize that the transport of non-bulky goods is faster by bicycle (and cheaper because it does not use fuel, does not pay taxes or insurance) than in small vans.
The average speed of cars in the city, during the day, is 14 kilometers per hour. In peak hours it may not exceed 5 kilometers per hour. The bike is faster.
Solution or problem?
The success was such that it generated its own problem. The number of bicycles moving around the city has grown so much that the construction of bicycle lanes does not keep up with that rate and in some places there are already bicycle jams.
The authorities continue to remove space for the car but they have also realized that the special lanes, due to the width of these cargo bikes, must be larger. And they must have two ways, back and forth.
The problems accumulate and the regional mobility authorities look for imaginative solutions. In addition to reducing the speed of cars throughout the city (except for certain large avenues) to 30 kilometers per hour, they had to give priority to bicycles on all streets that, due to their reduced width, were unable to have a separate bike lane.
If you ride a bike down one of those streets, 10 kilometers away at the moment, the cars have to be behind you, they can’t pass you and you don’t have to get out of the way.
Studies also show that many people are still afraid to ride on open, unprotected bike lanes, but if those lanes are protected with large cement blocks to separate them from cars, the number of children and adolescents who use them to go to school skyrockets.
The example of Leuven
Brussels looks at Leuven. The quintessential Belgian university town started first. If it was intended to take the car out of the city and give space to the bike, the success is absolute.
75% of the city’s streets are now only for pedestrians, skates or bicycles. The central area of Brussels, approximately 20% of the city, was definitively closed to traffic on September 1.
The streets have barriers that are only raised to let those who live in the center pass. If you don’t live there, you can’t drive except on a handful of major streets. The rest is for bicycles and public transport.
The argument was the same as in Brussels: why give most of the space to the car when more than half of the households in the city do not have a car, it pollutes more, makes more noise and takes up more space?