Pollution, accident free city"Ghent" because cars entry banned

In Belgium, cars are cherished possessions and driving is a staple of everyday life. But two of its major cities are making forcible efforts to cut down the traffic on their streets – with wildly different results. One morning in 1997, Frank Beke, the mayor of Ghent, woke up to find he’d been sent a bullet in the post. For the next few weeks Beke wore a bulletproof jacket, while police stood guard outside his house and accompanied him everywhere he went. “I was very anxious for my family,” he says. “I was protected by police but my wife and my children weren’t.” The culprit was eventually found and arrested – a man who owned a shoe shop in the Belgian city’s medieval centre. His motive? Beke’s plans to pedestrianise the area around his shop.

“It was a rather radical plan to ban all cars from an area of about 35 hectares,” recalls Beke. “With every decision you take, there can be some opposition – but I never expected a bullet, of course.”
There were protests outside Ghent’s city hall: businesses were afraid they’d lose their customers, elderly residents were concerned about being cut off from their children. But Beke stood his ground, and although a few businesses that relied on car access had to move, today the city centre is thriving.
His successor, Daniël Termont, says that if he were now to reintroduce cars into the city centre, he’d be the one wearing a bulletproof jacket. In all, 72% of Ghentians are in favour of Termont’s new plans to expand the pedestrian zone by 15 hectares (a further 17% are neutral).That’s not to say the project – due to commence in April 2017 – is progressing without a hitch. As well as the car-free area, Ghent’s new mobility plan includes dividing the city into six sections, each of which can only be entered via a ring road, to reduce through-traffic. In 2015, 40% of journeys in Ghent were made by car, down from 48% in 2012. By 2030, Termont wants to see that drop to 27%.

“Before you do such things you have to work months and months and even years to explain it, to prepare people,” he says.
Termont’s deputy mayor and mobility minister, Filip Watteeuw, has taken communication very seriously. His wife was nicknamed the green widow: Watteeuw is from Belgium’s Green party, and for two years he was almost never at home, spending long evenings at public consultations. The city government is now recruiting for a citizen’s cabinet: 150 local residents to advise the mobility minister on a more permanent basis. “So many people have an opinion about every element of the mobility plan,” says Watteeuw. “And their concerns are all understandable.”
For many Belgians, he says, cars are a symbol of status and independence. They resent being told where not to drive. And there are just so many cars: the country is heavily suburbanised, and in response to its high tax system, employers often choose to hand out company cars instead of bonuses and pay rises. In 2008, the federal government gave €4.1bn (£3.5bn) in tax benefits to company cars.
In an attempt to derail the mobility plan, the political opposition in Ghent is trying to force a referendum on it. They need signatures from 10% of the city’s population, and Termont is not sure how a vote would play out. Ghentians are notoriously stubbornBut Watteeuw is confident the city is moving in the right direction. “What happened in 1997 is very important for now,” he says. “For the first time in Ghent, people saw what could happen if you make a change for people and not for cars.”Brussels: trouble in pedestrian paradisBut perhaps Watteeuw and co have it easy. In Brussels, the attempts to pedestrianise a stretch of Boulevard Anspach – a four-lane urban highway that cuts through the city’s centre and connects its north and south stations – have proved even more fraughtThe Belgian capital is renowned for gridlock. Every day, 225,000 people commute into the city, where drivers spend an average of three days and 11 hours of every year stuck in trafficIn 2012 the Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, fed up with a city he felt had been “massacred by cars” and inspired by projects in Ghent, called for an unauthorised picnic on Place de la Bourse, a public square in front of Brussels’ former stock exchange building. Thousands turned up with picnic blankets, BBQs and ping pong tables, blocking vehicles and sparking a campaign that eventually forced the city government to commit to a car-free zone.

In July 2015 three squares including Bourse, plus the section of Boulevard Anspach that connects them, were pedestrianised. It was touted as the biggest car-free zone in Europe outside of Venice and was introduced during a heatwave, giving the city centre a festival feeling. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in March, people were able to spontaneously convene on the car-free Place de la Bourse, and leave flowers, candles and messages of solidarity.
“We need squares like this for people to come together,” says Van Parijs, who chose Bourse as the site of his protest because it’s a relatively poor area, more frequented by locals than tourists.
But the Brussels attacks – and the Paris attacks that preceded them – prompted a city lockdown, which Van Parijs believes has had a negative impact on his campaign for pedestrianisation. “For weeks, the metro stopped at 10pm. It really killed the nightlife,” he says. “It took a long time to recover. That strengthened the lobbying of people objecting to [pedestrianisation].”
Crowds gather in Brussels’ Place de la Bourse in March to pay tribute to victims of its terrorist attacks.
Shop owners, hotels and restaurants in that area reported income losses in the months following the introduction of the car-free zone. While a few can legitimately claim loss of earnings due to the sudden lack of car access, much of the downturn, Van Parijs believes, is because people were simply more afraid to go out.
Shopkeeper Alain Berlinblau, however, is adamant that pedestrianising the boulevard has deterred potential customers, preventing them from accessing car parks. He complains of poor security during the evenings in the car-free zone; many homeless people live in that area, and some residents feel unsafe walking through it at night. He also insists that traffic has merely been displaced, with residents on neighbouring roads complaining of increased congestion and pollution. President of the central Brussels traders group, Berlinblau has mounted a legal challenge, appealing against the city government’s urban development permit.

“The city of Brussels refuses to listen and is stubbornly sacrificing commercial activity for the sake of this project,” says Berlinblau. “The city centre is dying because of pedestrianisation.”
Yet according to a survey of local shopkeepers, 85% are in favour of the car-free zone – while 92% say it was badly implemented. This is how Jerome Vandermeulen, founder of Manhattn’s restaurant, feels. Last year, he chose to locate a second restaurant right in the middle of the car-free zone, because he believes pedestrianisation will improve the city’s international appeal. But he’s disappointed with the lack of progress on revamping the public squares. “They should have started construction immediately. That’s what made everybody angry, because they just closed the street and left it without anything,” says Vandermeulen.
Renovation work began recently, more than a year after the boulevard was pedestrianised, allowing time for the voices of dissent to get louder. The Brussels city mayor, Yvan Mayeur, was kicked out of a restaurant because its chef was angry with him. Local residents and business owners complain that the project was not well communicated, while some campaigners feel it hasn’t done enough to reduce car traffic or promote alternatives, such as cycling.
A spokesperson from Mayeur’s office concedes that he has encountered problems. “But it seems unfair to suggest that these were due to a lack of communication between the city of Brussels and the locals,” they say. “We have provided ample opportunity for people to voice their opinion and put ideas forward.”
Chickens living streets copyright Trojan Lab ghent
Mayeur is one of 19 mayors in Brussels, which has 19 municipalities. The pedestrianisation project was on his patch, but it also involved the federal government and the capital’s regional government. Pascal Smet, mobility minister for the region, believes there are too many levels of power, meaning projects are hampered by lengthy negotiations, political games and slow progress. “We have to become one city with one mayor, where the regional level becomes the city level,” says Smet.
But politicians are unlikely to give up power willingly. With local elections coming in 2018, the pressure is on to speed up public works programmes before discontent really sets in.

Ghent’s living streets

Back in Ghent, the city government and its partners are now experimenting with new ways to counter residents’ resistance to change, with the Living Streets project.
It gives locals a chance to reclaim their streets: they can apply to make the road outside their home car-free, usually for a two- or three-month period over the summer. It started as a two-street initiative in 2013, and by 2016 there were 18 car-free areas dotted around residential parts of the city.

As well as gaining local government approval and the advice of the fire department, Living Streets advocates have to speak to all their neighbours who will be affected. If there’s a problem, solutions have to be found before the project can be approved.
What started as an exercise in thinking about sustainable mobility became, for many people, more about the social benefits.
Take Biekorfstraat, just east of Ghent city centre. “It’s a small street with little houses and no gardens. People didn’t know each other,” says Sofie Rottiers of Trojan Lab, which facilitates the project.
When the street was pedestrianised this summer, people really came together. An 83-year-old man would sit outside his house every morning and wave to his neighbours on their way to work and school. The residents organised events together on the street, and even kept chickens, which laid eggs that everyone shared between them.
An earlier version of the project was Ghent’s “playing streets”: if a resident got support from 70% of their neighbours, they could apply to make their street car-free for a few hours a day over the summer. Mayor Daniël Termont is determined to make his city the most child-friendly in Flanders, and is fully behind the Living Streets experiment in democracy.
“We have to change our old-fashioned view of running a city,” he says. “And that takes a lot of political courage.”

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South Punjab News : Pollution, accident free city"Ghent" because cars entry banned
Pollution, accident free city"Ghent" because cars entry banned
“I was protected by police but my wife and my children weren’t.” The culprit was eventually found and arrested – a man who owned a shoe shop in the Belgian city’s medieval centre. His motive? Beke’s plans to pedestrianise the area around his shop.
South Punjab News
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