Brussels: The Capital of (The Automobile in) Europe

Brussels has been full of surprises. Before moving here, I knew little about the Belgian (and de-facto European) capital besides what I learned when I visited in 2010 and what I heard from friends:  great waffles and fries, a bizarre statue of a peeing boy, bilingual and nice trams. I had been told it often rains and each time I told someone my Masters program involved studying in four European cities, unequivocally Brussels prompted the least enthusiastic response.

In my first few months here, I met a person who told me that Brussels is a “love at second sight” kind of city. I think she was right. There is nothing outstanding about Brussels – it is beautiful and ugly, with its mix of architectural styles, from Art Nouveau to Gothic to Classic; very diverse with people from all over the world after waves of immigration and a large expat community working for the European institutions and NATO. There is always something to do, especially in terms of music, art and food. It does sometimes rain, but lucky for me it has often been sunny and mild. It is a liveable kind of city, the kind of place I can imagine living myself. Except for one thing: the cars.

The thing that hands down surprised me the most about Brussels is the number of cars and the sheer place devoted to automobiles in the city. I bought a bike upon arriving in Brussels and I, a seasoned Montreal (which is by no means Amsterdam or Copenhagen-like in its bicycle infrastructure and culture) cyclist, was apprehensive at first.

I bike everywhere in Brussels. I wrote an earlier post  about the challenges of cycling (the hills, the aggressive drivers, the cobblestone), but the real problem with Brussels is the overwhelming presence and standing of the automobile.

This surprised me not only because of the stereotypes I had about European cities being from North America, but also because during my internship at the Montreal Urban Ecology Center last year we would often cite the progressive highway code in Belgium, which (it would seem) gives priority to the most vulnerable road users (pedestrians first and then cyclists). However, after five months in Brussels, it seems that at least in this Belgian city the code is not fully embraced – or enforced.

No priority for pedestrians

Pedestrians do not always have priority in Brussels. Often, pedestrians stand waiting at crosswalks until cars stop going in order to cross. When I cycle I always stop at crosswalks and insist that the pedestrian cross. Usually they accept reluctantly, surprised that I have stopped to allow them to pass and then smile and thank me. Further, on some of the large boulevards in Brussels crosswalks are very far apart, leading residents to jaywalk to avoid the long detour. I wrote about this is my last post.

Cars, cars, everywhere, even at the Eiffel Tower of Belgium

AtomiumThe Atomium is something like the Eiffel Tower of Belgium. Built for the 1958 World Expo, it is like the biosphere (former U.S. Pavillon during Expo 1967 in Montreal). However, you can drive right up to and under the Atomium. There are cars parked all around it – this is something that you do not see at other such tourist attractions and emblematic structures. Usually there is a park all around such a structure (i.e. the Eiffel Tower).

There are many parking lots in Brussels, including in front of the “maisons communales”, the city halls of the communes.  The spaces in front of these (often beautiful) buildings become giant parking lots in the evenings and on weekends. It not only prevents me from taking a nice picture of these buildings, but it seems to be a misuse of this kind of space, for private interests (parking) instead of community activities, benches or simply as a space of political expression.

There are even cars in the parks in Brussels. One of the largest parks, where I often go running, walking or cycling, is Bois de la Cambre. However, it also has wide roads cutting through it, with few (or no) pedestrian crosswalks. I often have to run across the road when the cars have a red light in the distance in order to get from one side of the path to the other, to keep running or cycling. In the summer, the roads are closed from Friday to Sunday evening, but during the week cars zip through the park all day long. Likewise, a park in the north of the city, Parc de Laeken, is also transected by traffic.

There is also the question of safety. I have been hit by a car once and nearly hit on several other occasions. Cars often do not look for cyclists and often drive so close to the right curb that cyclists have no space or sit in the bicycle boxes at red lights (spaces for cyclists to wait at traffic lights, ahead of cars, to avoid conflict and give cyclists priority).

Recently the mayor of Brussels’ commune, the city centre of the Brussels Capital Region, mentioned removing cars from the city centre, namely from Anspach, the Haussmann Paris-like boulevard that I mentioned in my previous post. If cities like New York and London have begun to be less auto-centric, with pedestrian zones or congestion taxes, I see no reason why a smaller city, with an extensive system of buses, trams and metro (although the hours should be revised, especially for evening and night travel), walkable distances and a challenging yet manageable cycling environment, can also become less auto-centric. After all, it seems strange that the Capital of Europe should be so auto-centric, so “American”, in its urban form and transportation habits.


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