A four-lane motorway through the heart of Brussels’ EU district has been transformed overnight to accommodate post-lockdown cyclists.

Anton Lazarus takes a look at how European cities are being rebuilt for people, not cars.

Until this week the Rue de la Loi-Wetstraat was a four-lane, car-choked highway funneling motorway traffic through the European district of the Belgian capital. As if by magic everything changed this week after contractors worked through the night so that the people of Brussels could wake up to a cycling miracle.

With people expected to swap crowded buses and trains for a healthy cycle or walk, demand for road space for ‘active transport’ looks set to skyrocket in the coming months. And the European capital is among a group of cities leading the way in embracing measures to ensure a healthier city.

A city for people, not cars

Brussels has already implemented a new 20km/h speed limit in the city centre to protect vulnerable road users and pedestrians forced onto the street to ensure physical distancing, and the city has bold plans to do more.

The city’s transport minister is Elke Van den Brandt, who has thanked a number of colleagues – including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo – for their “inspiration”.

Van den Brandt’s plan includes 40km of new bike lanes in the Belgian capital.

But the European district cycle path has not been universally welcomed, with some motorists complaining that the the area was already a traffic blackspot.

But Van den Brandt has taken to Twitter to defend the decision, pointing out that before the works were completed the street’s 3000 daily motorists enjoyed 12 meter of street space, while the 2000 people who cycled were squeezed into just 5.5m.

Campaign groups have pointed out the inefficiency of using road space for private cars, often carrying just a single passenger, for many years.

The need to ensure physical distancing to protect our health means that Brussels is far from unique, with local authorities all over Europe rushing to put new infrastructure in place at record speeds.

All over Europe

In Scotland £10 million has been set aside to support pop-up active travel infrastructure after witnessing increases in cycling of as much as 214% in the second half of March.

Authorities in Hungary have written that “the decrease in automobile traffic provides an opportunity to improve Budapest’s bicycle transport network with rapid intervention” and opened new ‘pop up’ bike lanes on major boulevards through the capital.

While Paris, which already had ambitious plans to improve walking and cycling, has announced 650km of new post-lockdown cycle lanes.

Milan’s Strade Aperte project will see reduced speed limits, new and wider bike lanes and pavements and 35km of city centre streets where private cars are no longer welcome.

Cycle sales

With cycling still allowed during the lockdowns in some countries, and two wheels increasingly seen at the healthy choice for commuting for the foreseeable future, bike sales have increased in many parts of Europe.

In London, the the BBC has reported some shops witnessing an 80% rise in bike sales since the corona crisis began and online bike stores reporting “floods” of orders in Belgium.

Quieter, safer streets and cleaner air

Empty city streets have led to reduced noise pollution, made urban areas safer for children to play and cut harmful air pollution during lockdowns.

Many people living in cities will want to avoid a return to the pollution of ‘business as usual’ and demand that something positive emerges from the horror of the current crisis.

With air pollution already returning to major Chinese cities, it is up to European leaders at all levels – from local governments to the European institutions – to ensure that we build back better and can provide a healthier, more resilient environment for the future.

Ultimately, it will be the level of public support that decides how many of the ‘temporary measures’ being taken now could become permanent, positive features of the cities of the future.


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