Brussels’ new pedestrian area is not just “the death of business”

Brussels opened a new pedestrian area in the city centre in July 2015. The car-free zone is one of the largest in Europe and a welcome move to improve quality of life in one of the continent’s most congested cities. Works to transform the infrastructure in the area, including an added 3000 m3 of green space, have begun in 2016.

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Brussels’ new pedestrian area – picture by the city of Brussels of the end result when all works are done.

However, since the beginning of the project, many business owners have opposed to the pedestrianisation, claming that it will lead to the death of business in the city centre. Their concern seems to be, that if people cannot drive into the city centre, these shops will go bust, as nobody will be able to do any shopping anymore.

This April, a group of angry business owners raised their voices in a city council meeting and demanded that Brussels’ mayor Ivan Mayor, a strong supporter of the pedestrian project, resign.

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A sign against the pedestrian zone at a shop window.

Luckily, the Mayor is committed to the project as he sees the benefits it can bring to the city as a whole. But the oppostion seems convinced that the pedestrian zone is a disaster and killing their business.

But actually, studies suggest that shop owners tend to overestimate the business brought in by car users and underestimate how much pedestrians and people using bikes spend in the local shops.

Besides, have these angry business owners considered that there may be other underlying factors behind their declining business, such as the rise of online shopping or the impact of Brussels’ terrorist attacks and the resulting lock-down in the city? Perhaps we need a more balanced development of the centre where every street has something interesting to offer to visitors.

Brussels’ city centre will still have more than 20 000 parking spaces available for those who want to come there by car, and apparently the maximum distance to find a parking area in the car-free zone is 350 metres. Thus, the city centre remains accessible to cars, but is now more accessible to other users as well.

Positive impacts of Brussels’ pedestrian zone

Despite the visible campaigns lead by a group of dissatisfied entrepreneurs, Brussels’ business community is not all against the project. Many shop owners have said that the pedestrian zone has actually been a good development, as it makes the area lot more attractive to spend time in, compared to the car-dominated and polluted area it used to be.

Restaurants and bars certainly seem to have seized the new opportunity and have expanded their seating areas out onto the street. The experience of eating out in the city centre is much more pleasant without cars and pollution right next to one’s table.

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People eating out in Brussels’ pedestrian centre. How can this be bad for business?

The new car-free zone should be a boost for tourism as well. At least foreign tourists tend to stay in hotels in the city centre and shop by foot in the area around the Grand Place. For example, Japanese tourists spend an average 250 euros per day when visiting Belgium.

Economic arguments aside, the new pedestrian zone certainly has a lot of value for citizens:

Last March, when the Brussels’ terrorism attacks happened, the people of Brussels gathered spontaneously in the pedestrian area in front of the Bourse building to show their solidarity and support for the tragedy. The area soon filled with flowers, candles and people’s messages and the place became the symbol of Brussels during those difficult times.

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Bourse filled with flowers. Photo from this article.

This is proof that the public car-free space is needed, appreciated and used by Brussels’ citizens.

Since its opening, the “pietonnier” has been used to host a number of events from music to sports to the Zinneke parade, and every day kids and adults alike are using the space to play and to spend time in the heart of their capital in a relaxed setting. Thus, the social and cultural dimensions of the car-free zone should not be undervalued.

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Furthermore, studies suggest that air quality has improved in the area since the opening of the pedestrian zone. I believe that the right to breath in clean air especially in such a densely populated area is stronger than the right to drive to shops. And we mustn’t forget that better air quality brings valuable health and economic benefits as well.

So for these reasons alone, let us hope that the city of Brussels does not give up on its ambitious project. The pedestrian area is still very much unfinished, as the works are undergoing as we speak. There can of course be improvements to opitimise the flows of traffic for all users. Giving cyclists and public transport better access in the zone should be a priority.

What do you think? What positive impacts has the pedestrian zone had so far?

Green spaces, where art thou?

In nice weather, the green areas just outside Brussels city centre are filled with people. These green spaces, such as the Bois de la Cambre park or Forêt de Soignes, offer people easy access to nature in the Belgian capital.

Statistically speaking, Brussels is actually quite a green city: half of the Brussels region is covered in green spaces.

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Forêst de Soigne in spring time.

However, this greenery is distributed very unevenly within the region: 70 % of the green spaces are in the outer suburbs, while only 10 % is found in Brussels’ city centre.

The area around the European institutions is a good example of the lack of green areas in the city of Brussels:

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An example of a concrete jungle at rue de Trèves.

Would you enjoy living or working in this area? Unfortunately, many quarters in Brussels’ EU district are made up of grey concrete office buildings, large car lanes with very narrow pavements and lacking cycle paths, with no trees or greenery present. Sure, there are parks surrounding the EU area, such as the Cinquantanaire and Park Leopold, but outside these parks’ gates too many streets are left without absolutely any presence of nature.

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Rue Belliard and Rue de la Loi have plenty of car lanes but almost no trees.

The EU quarter is not the only place in Brussels that lacks greenery. There are many potentially nice areas in the centre which have been turned into large car parks (see my earlier post on Sablon) or just covered in concrete without any consideration for liveability.

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The area around the Midi station is pretty bare and grey.

My guess is that these areas still suffer from the effects of Brusselisation, the unfortunate urban planning trend of the the 1960’s and 1970’s, which replaced many architecturally and historically valuable buildings with high-rise office blocks. As part of this development, many local neighbourhoods were scarred by massive car lanes and tunnels for the next decades to come. Today’s problems with Brussels’ tunnels are just one example of the costs that we have to pay for the mistakes that were made by politicians and urban planners of the time.

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More concrete at the entrance to one of Brussels’ car tunnels at Botanique.

The value of urban green spaces

So much potential is wasted with urban spaces that lack green areas. Numerous studies show that green spaces bring a lot of value to society as a whole. Their environmental benefits are huge: parks and other green areas provide important ecosystem services by acting as barriers against floods and storms, by cleaning urban air, filtering out noise and regulating temperatures during extreme weather, as well as preserving biodiversity in cities.

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Green spaces also contribute to health in many ways, for example by promoting physical activity – just think of all those people jogging and kids playing football in parks when the weather starts getting nice!

According to an estimate by Natural England, if everyone in the UK had easy access to green spaces, it would save the country’s healthcare system £2.1 billion per year.

In addition, there are many social and economic factors related to green spaces as well: properties located near green areas often have a higher value, whereas people living in (urban) deprived areas are less likely to have access to green spaces.

The Financial Times recently ran an article on how attractive parks, such as the Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London, pump up local economies (FT 6.2.2016). Businesses are aware of this recreational value: people simply like spending time in attractive places that include a bit of greenery.

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No cars allowed beyond this point.

All in all, Brussels is losing out on not investing in more green spaces in its city centre. People do not want to live or work in grey concrete quarters, but rather have a city which is liveable and enjoyable. Sadly, funding for urban spaces is decreasing in many cities around the world (FT 6.2.2016), as their benefits are undervalued. It is, however, important that green spaces are integrated as part of urban planning from the start. Every block/quarter should have some form of greenery available for city residents to enjoy every day.

Inspired by New York’s High Line

Last November I had the chance to visit the High Line in Manhattan, New York. The High line is an old railway line, which was transformed into a 2,33 km long public park.

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The High Line is well worth a visit if you are a friend of sustainable urban planning like I am.

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Welcome to the High Line.

 

The High Line was a part of Manhattan’s West Side rail line, providing an important industrial transport connection. The elevated section of the line was served by cargo trains from the 1930’s onwards. The last train ran on the line in 1980, after which the tracks were left abandoned for several years.

In the 1990s, the High Line was threatened with demolition, but a group of friends of the line lobbied for its preservation and redevelopment.

Construction works on the line began in 2006 in collaboration with the City of New York. The park first opened to the public in 2009 and its latest section was opened in 2014.

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Views along the way.

The benefits of the redevelopment are manyfold. Since its opening, the High Line has become a popular attraction with 5 million annual visitors.

The park provides much needed green space in an urban environment and also adds to the biodiversity of the city.

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Overlooking the Hudson river.

 

A lot of the plant species are native to the area. The landscape architects were inspired by the wild vegetation that had grown over the tracks during the years when the line was abandoned. The result is a harmonious green space that looks natural and inviting.

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Architecture and art flourish on the High Line alongside plants.

In addition, the redeveloped High Line has had a positive impact on properties along the old railway line. It has also been an inspiration to many art and architecture projects in the area.

 

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Art along the High Line.

Examples of such great restoration projects of motorways and railways can be found in cities across the globe. In addition, the Urb-i project  has an interesting gallery of before and after images of redeveloped urban spaces.

Perhaps Brussels’ pedestrian centre can be an inspiration for sustainable urban development as well when it is finished?

Bike sharing schemes tested, part 2: Citi Bike in New York

During my recent trip to the United States, I had a chance to test two local bike sharing schemes: Hubway in Boston and Citi Bike in New York.

This is the second part of my review, focusing on the Citi Bike scheme in New York. (Read part one on Boston’s Hubway bike scheme here.)

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A New York Citi Bike station seen from above.

Introducing New York’s Citi Bike

New York’s blue Citi Bike scheme has been available in Manhattan and Brooklyn since 2013. In 2015 the network has been expanded to cover other areas as well.

The system has over 7400 bikes and 330 stations and is operational all year round (Boston’s Hubway system has been closed during previous winter seasons).

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A Citi Bike station in Manhattan.

Impressive user statistics, rather high pricing

The Citi Bike scheme seems very popular. According to company statistics, there were 1,3 million rides alone in September 2015, with an average of 42,990 rides per day. On average, each bicycle in the system had just under six rides per day last September.

Prices for using the bikes are as follows:

  • 24-hour rental 9,95 $
  • 7-day pass 25,00 $
  • Annual subscription 149,00 $.

Each ride is free for up to 30 minutes. For rides of 30-60 minutes users pay 4 dollars extra, for 60-90 minutes 9 dollars, and after that the price is 12 dollars for every additional 30 minutes. Annual members get 45 minutes  for free and have smaller extra fees.

The prices seem a bit on the high side, but then again, using the subway in New York cost us about 10 dollars per day per person as well, and with the bikes you get an unlimited number of trips per day.

We didn’t have any trouble returning our bikes in New York, as the docking stations had free slots every time we needed them. To keep the number of bikes and slots convenient for users, the company says it provides twice as many docking points as bicycles, and it also evens out the number of bikes at stations regularly. For example in September 2015, they rebalanced over 86 000 bikes.

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Citi Bike map in Brooklyn.

3 bike sharing schemes compared: Brussels’ Villo much cheaper and has good network coverage

Compared to Brussels’ Villo bike scheme, using a shared bike in Boston and New York is much more expensive. Renting a Villo bike in Brussels costs only 1,60 € per day or 7,65 € for a week, and an annual subscription is priced at just over 30 euros. Additional 30 minutes per ride cost between 0,5 € and 2 euros.

The Villo scheme has a good network of 359 stations covering the Brussels Capital region. This is really good coverage compared to Boston’s station network (140). Even in New York, where there are 8,5 million inhabitants and over 50 million tourists every year, the number of stations is not that much higher (about 440).

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A Villo station in Brussels.

Systems easy to use, visibility of stations could be better

Both US schemes were easy to use for first-timers. Renting out a bike is relatively quick after registering, and it can all be done at the station. Both schemes have a similar code system for unlocking the bikes, and annual subscription holders get a key to unlock bikes even more easily.

Both the Hubway and Citibike could benefit from making their stations more visible, especially in the dark. Often we walked or cycled past stations as we could not see them. One suggestion would be to add a distinctive light or a tall sign to improve stations’ visibility.

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City Bike stations can be difficult to spot at night.

Biking is a good way to explore the city

The bikes are a good option for discovering New York and Boston, as cycling can give you a new perspective on the city and its streets. We were also lucky to have sunny and warm days in November. Cycling over the Brooklyn Bridge was a great experience, and the bikes were very convenient for moving from one part of Manhattan to another.

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Cycling over Brooklyn bridge.

What are your experiences with bike sharing schemes?

Bike sharing schemes tested, part 1: Hubway in Boston

During my recent trip to the United States, I had a chance to test two local bike sharing schemes: Hubway in Boston and Citi Bike in New York.

Hubway has potential, dropping off your bike can be challenging

The Boston bike sharing system, the Hubway, has been around since 2011. There are currently 140 stations and over 1300 bikes in the system, which covers central Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.

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A Hubway station in Cambridge.

We rented two bikes for 72 hours for the price of 12 dollars per bike. Other options include:

  • 24-hour rental (6 $)
  • a monthly subscription (20 $)
  • an annual membership (85 $).

Rides are free for up to 30 minutes. After that, users pay 2 dollars for every extra 30 minutes, and after 90 minutes 8 dollars for every 1/2 hour.

If the station where you want to return your bike is full, you can get additional 15 minutes to look for a free station.

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A full station at Harvard Square.

In principle, the bikes are a good way to get around in Boston and the surrounding area. We enjoyed the freedom they gave us, especially since we did not have a car (though we did test Über and Lyft as well). In some places public transport was not really close by or the routes weren’t practical either.

The bikes themselves were also quite nice to use. They felt sturdy, quite light to cycle on, and some newer models had quite good lights. At the front of each bike there is a space for keeping a bag as well.

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Hubway bikes stationed at night.

However, as a downside, several times during our three days we wanted to return bikes, but all the stations nearby were full. Sometimes it took us a long time to find a free station, as we were not familiar with the area or the location of the bike stations.

One one occasion the station closest to our accommodation was empty of bikes, and we had to walk quite far to find the next station. Overall, these issues meant that we had to walk longer distances than planned and waste some time cycling around looking for suitable stations.

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An empty Hubway station in Cambridge.

This suggests a clear need to expand the Hubway network so that there is enough coverage and stations nearby in areas where bikes tend to run out or where stations are often full. We experienced most problems in Cambridge and Somerville, whereas central Boston had a better network of stations.

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Hubway station map showing bike stations in central Boston.

The Hubway system includes an app, which shows the location of stations and how many bikes and free slots there are at each station in real time. However, the app was not useful for us, as our smartphones did not work in the States and we only had limited access to wifi on the go. In practice, we had to rely on the maps at Hubway stations to locate nearest stations. At some stations there was no map available, which complicated things even further.

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A closeup of a Hubway station screen.

The Hubway scheme seems quite popular in Boston, and it had over 12,600 annual members in January 2015. The scheme has certainly helped Boston to become a more bike-friendly city, although there is still a lot of work to do in terms of infrastructure, for example.

All in all, our experience with Hubway is positive, but there are certain issues that would need to be solved in order to make the scheme more convenient to use.

In the second part of this post, I will be reviewing New York’s Citi Bike scheme and will make some general conclusions of the two schemes, so read on!

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:

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    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!

Car-free day in Brussels 2015

On Sunday 20th of September Brussels celebrated car-free day for the 15th time. The event takes place annually as part of European mobility week, during which numerous events are organised across Europe on the theme of mobility and sustainable transport.

In the Brussels region, cars (except for buses and taxis) were banned in the city between 9h30 and 19h on this special Sunday:

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Schaerbeek on the car-free day

The day is always a big success: People are out and about on foot, by bikes or on roller blades, children are playing on the streets and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. The air is cleaner to breathe. Usually, the weather is nice too, and this year was no exception.

On one day a year, infrastructure that is normally dedicated to cars is given to people:

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The ringroad at Porte de Namur

In some places in Brussels, the difference to a normal day is enormous. Take Rue de la Loi, one of the main traffic arteries in Brussels’ European quarter, for example:

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Rue de la Loi in rush hour traffic
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The same street on the car-free day

The new pedestrian area seems very popular, and it sure was busy on the car-free day as well:

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The day is a good occasion to go on cycle rides, as streets are empty of cars and much nicer to cycle on.  Some cycling tours were organised for the public this year as well. I took part in a cycle tour in Schaerbeek, organised by the local cycling association Gracq as part of the Belgian “heritage days” that took place the same weekend.

The cycling tour attracted lots of people, and it was a nice chance to get to know Schaerbeek a bit better.

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Cycling tour about to begin.

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The car-free day has its charms, but it is also a challenging day in terms of getting around. There are many inexperienced road users, including children, out on the streets, and as the rules on the roads are suddenly changed without cars there, people do not know how to behave in traffic. This can lead to many dangerous situations, and especially cyclists need to be patient on the roads and take things more slowly on the day.

But over all, the car-free day is a nice way to give the city back to the people, even if it is for only one day. It is a good reminder of how much space and infrastructure is actually given to cars in cities, especially in Brussels.