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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?