Cobbles!

Brussels has a lot of cobbled streets. Aren’t they charming?

Marolles and its old cobbled streets.
Marolles and its old cobbled streets.

Unfortunately, cobbles have some downsides in terms of mobility. Anyone who has ever used a bike can tell you that cobbles are not very comfortable to cycle on, as they are often bumpy and make your bike rattle and shake.

Also cars suffer from driving on uneven cobbles, and are probably more easily worn and damaged as a result.

Due to this shake effect, cobbles also increase traffic noise pollution in cities. Especially badly made or worn cobble surfaces are very noisy to drive on.

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Example of cobbles from Brussels

Personally, I try to avoid cycling on old cobbled streets as much as possible. Sometimes this means not using the most direct route going where I want to go, as I really dislike the shaking feeling on my bike, especially downhill. Sablon is a good example of a route that I would use a lot more often, if it wasn’t for the cobbles.

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Smooth asphalt turns into cobbles in Sablon.

But why do cities use cobbles in the first place?

  • Esthetic reasons: Some cities use cobbles to maintain a historic feeling of an area (Here’s an example from Seattle on this topic). This reason is understandable in historical or touristy areas, where the ambiance of a place is sometimes more important than functionality. Old parts of European cities are often cobbled, like the area around the Grand Place in Brussels, for example.
Tourists taking photos on cobbled Grand Place.

However, this reason is not good enough to justify the use of cobbles in
backstreets of residential areas and on busy roads, which require practicality
and smooth mobility.

  • Besides, if cobbled streets are not maintained properly, they look pretty horrible and ruin the desired esthetic effect:

    CIMG9669
    This street next to the Palace of Justice in Brussels has been like this for months.
  • One possible reason for using cobble pavings could be their ability to absorb water better than asphalt. In environmental terms this could be a good solution to help fight floods in city areas.CIMG9674
  • I haven’t found information on how much cobbled streets cost compared to, for example, asphalt. But it seems that cobbles get loose and have to be replaced quite often. They also add to societal costs by increasing damage to vehicles and noise as well as by putting people off cycling.

If a city wants to promote cycling, it should use smooth surfaces to encourage people to get on their bikes. A good example can be found in cycling capital Copenhagen, where old cobbles are being replaced with a smoother cobble-like surface. This solution is ideal, as it caters both for looks and for functionality.

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In Brussels, cyclists sould give feedback to local authorities to tell them which streets and major cycling routes would benefit from a smoother surface. Sablon would be a good place to start.

If you know more about the topic or want to share your views, I’d be happy to hear from you!

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