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Brussels: capital of Europe, gridlock capital of the world

Brussels is a thriving metropolis, but as anyone who commutes to work can attest, the city’s transportation network is oversaturated. 

Last week, Brussels participated in the European Mobility Week, an annual campaign aimed at raising awareness of mobility issues and alternative transportation methods, culminating in car-free Sunday. With the city administration estimating that the number of kilometers driven on secondary roads has risen by 30% over the last 10 years, this day certainly came as a welcome relief to local residents. How did we get into this jam?

Creating a transportation network to easily access the capital has always been a problem for political reasons. Simply put, the heart of the Belgian economy lies in what is referred to as the Brussels Metropolitan Region, an area centered on Brussels and extending to Halle-Vilvoorde and part of the Walloon Brabant province. But, as transportation is a regional competence, this crucial territory lies in the hands of three different regional authorities. As such, it has so far been very difficult to hatch an objective, far-reaching, all-inclusive and coherent mobility plan.

On the one hand, traffic is the most mundane of concerns, but it has a real impact on businesses. A recent report from Inrix, a company which supplies traffic information and applications, named Brussels the worst city for congestion in the world, with the average driver spending 85.5 hours a year stuck in gridlock. This is lost time, which not only affects the quality of life of employees, but also the delivery of services and the transportation of goods in and out of the city.

One part of the answer was brought up by the Brussels region when it laid out its IRIS2 plan. The city hopes to reduce traffic by 20% by 2018 by increasing the reach and effectiveness of the public transportation system. Brussels is also considering the possibility of imposing a €3 congestion charge on anyone entering the city (Brussels residents included). Congestion charges have been successfully introduced in several European cities, such as London and Gothenburg, but these cities all invested substantially in alternative transport options before introducing the levy. Brussels must be careful not to put the cart before the horse.

At the Belgian level, the idea of a kilometer tax in the area surrounding Brussels has gained enough traction to justify a volunteer-based pilot project. If implemented, this tax would cover a territory up to 30km around Brussels, inhabited by 2.5 million people. The country has also started work on the Brussels Regional Express Network (RER), a rapid transit system that promises a 15-minute connection by train to the city center for anybody living within 30km of Brussels. Unfortunately, this project has been hit by numerous delays, and the completion date has already been pushed back from 2012 to 2021.

AmCham Belgium urges Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia to overcome their differences and solve the mobility issues, turning the capital of Europe into a real example of best practice.