Brussels breaks with the car — Europe’s best public spaces — Playful zebra crossings – POLITICO

Brussels breaks with the car — Europe's best public spaces — Playful zebra crossings – POLITICO

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A conversation about what makes a livable city.


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Happy Thursdaycity ​​lovers, and welcome back to POLITICO’s Living Cities project.

Brussels is known as the de facto capital of the European Union, the birthplace of delicious beers and chips and, less coincidentally, one of the block’s most car-choked cities.

But a new plan, set to take effect next week, will transform the city’s central core. The idea? To curb traffic and make way for people, bicycles and public transport.

That’s where we’re going to dive in after the jump. Living Cities is taking a short summer break next week and will be back on August 25.


CENTRAL BRUSSELS TRAFFIC GAMBLING: In the Belgian capital, decades of car-friendly policy decisions have led to vehicles dominating public spaces, emitting toxic substances and endangering pedestrians and cyclists. Now, a new plan designed to curb car access to the city’s core – the so-called Pentagon – aims to set Brussels on a new course.

Time for a change: The Good Move Pentagon Plan, which comes into effect on August 16, will ban cars from crossing the city center, instead diverting to the ring road. Some major roads become one-way streets; others will only allow public transport and priority vehicles such as ambulances. A handful of streets will ban cars altogether and become pedestrianized. “We are leaving behind the Brussels of the 60s and 70s, when everything was built for cars, and we are moving in a completely different direction in which the city is for people,” said Bart Dhondt, the city’s alderman for mobility.


The new circulation plan for the center of Brussels | City of Brussels

A green conspiracy: The plan of the city of Brussels is part of the wider regional Good move plan, which aims to reduce car traffic by 24 percent by 2030. This policy is a direct consequence of the green wave of the local elections of 2018, in which the Green party gained representation – and important mobility posts – in 11 of the 19 municipalities of the Brussels Region . By working together and reaching out to coalition partners, the Greens have been able to secure majority agreements to end the favorable treatment of cars in the capital.

Bringing things on board: As in other cities that have tried to reduce access to cars, Dhondt said the biggest resistance to the proposed changes came from store owners concerned about the potential impact on their businesses. Successful examples from other cities and an effort to communicate clearly with local entrepreneurs were key to getting them on board, the councilor said. “It also helps that the pedestrian streets in Brussels are our most visited areas… More and more people are realizing that this is actually good for business,” he said.

Read my story here.


DISCOUNT TRANSPORT FLOP? Preliminary data seems to show that Germany’s national scheme for public transport tickets of €9 per month did not encourage people to leave their cars at home this summer. Philipp Kosok, project manager public transport for the think tank Agora Verkehrswende, told the DPA pers news agency the initial data was “alarming” as it suggests the plan had “no apparent climate benefit” and may even have a negative effect, as it led to increased traffic. Klaus Bogenberger, the academic who led a study on the effect of the Munich plan, was more optimistic, saying that “many people have integrated the use of public transport into their daily lives”, even if they have not radically changed their habits.


The renovated Saint Sernin square in Toulouse | BAU Joan Busquets and Pieter-Jan Versluys

BEST URBAN SPACES: a lush community garden in Riga, Latvia, an elegant square in Toulouse, France, and a thought-provoking courtyard in Lund, Sweden, belong to the finalists for the biennial European Prize for Urban Public Space, which recognizes the best works that create, restore and enhance public space across the block. Also included in the list: Flowthe first open-air swimming pool to be opened in Brussels in 40 years, and that of Utrecht Catharijnesingel, a free-flowing canal built where there was once a highway. The winning project will be announced in Nov.

FLOATING ACCESS IN AMSTERDAM: About 80 boats took part in Amsterdam’s Canal Parade last week, one of the city’s most beloved annual Pride events. Among them was “Unlimited Tros” (“Unlimited Proud”), a flamboyant purple craft that targets LGBTQ+ people with intellectual disabilities and aims to raise the profile of what it calls a largely “invisible” group. As we reported in June, people with disabilities find that they are often unable to participate in Pride events that, for example, have not made an effort to allow access for those in wheelchairs. In that regard, Saturday’s canal event was a particular challenge: heavy electric wheelchairs posed a safety issue on the boat, forcing people to switch to manual wheelchairs, reports my colleague Giovanna. Other boats were not wheelchair accessible at all.


The boat “Unlimited Tros” on the Canal Parade in Amsterdam on August 6, 2022 | Giovanna Coic

Amsterdam Pride spokesperson Martijn Albers acknowledged that despite the organizers’ best efforts, it was “sometimes not possible” to ensure that people with reduced mobility could board. The city’s historic features, such as cobbled streets, the height of the quays and the limited space to install ramps, all posed significant challenges, he added, but stressed that accessibility is “something that’s on our radar right now.”


CREATIVE CROSS TOURS: Crosswalk signals that let pedestrians know when to cross the street safely have been around for over 150 years in our urban landscapes. The very first boards, manually operated by police officers, made their debut on London’s Bridge Street in 1868; as cars took over our cities, the signals appeared on more and more street corners. Backlit icons have been pretty standard for the past century: the figure of a walking man glows bright green when pedestrians are free to cross the street; a red figure or hand flashes if they are not. But some cities opt for more creative images.


Lions of Leon | Eduardo Suarez

Laughter and Lions: Last month, the Spanish city of Málaga introduced a new zebra crossing sign to honor the legendary comedian and native son Chiquito de la Calzada. When it is safe to cross, the signals show a figure mimicking Chiquitos famous eccentric gait; if not, the voice of the late comedian is heard shouting his famous catchphrase “Quiet!(“Stop here!”). Just a few weeks later, the city of León introduced its own special crosswalk design featuring the city’s image heraldic lions.


The East Berlin Ampelmännchen | Creative Commons

I love you ampelmen: The Spaniards are certainly not the first to develop alternative zebra crossing signs. East German traffic psychologist Karl Peglau debuted with his ampelmen design in 1961, depicting a green man cheerfully stepping forward when it’s time to go and dramatically extending his arms when it’s time to stop. Both versions wear a cheerful hat, supposedly inspired by a photo of the East German leader Erich Honecker wearing a straw hat. The East German Regime May Be Gone, But It’s Iconic ampelmen live on in the crosswalk signals of East Berlin and in souvenir merchandise.

Writers, Communists and Couples: A large number of other cities celebrate famous figures or bourgeois values. In Odense, Denmark, a design featuring a man wearing a top hat and walking stick celebrates the author Hans Christian Andersenborn there in 1805. In Trier, Germany, an icon of the author of the “Communist Manifesto” and the native son Karl Marx indicates when it is safe to cross. Meanwhile, since 2015, Vienna has telegraphed its support for LGBTQ+ rights with zebra crossings that de same sex couples to walk hand in hand.

That’s all well and good, but… Spanish urban planner Antonio Giraldo told me that cities should be careful when adopting new zebra crossing icons. “The reason crosswalk signs generally have silhouettes of people is to facilitate universal accessibility for those who may not see well,” he explained. Referring to the new cues in León, featuring the same heraldic lion in green and red, Giraldo said the change could be problematic for people who are colorblind. “We have to be careful not to make pedestrians’ lives more difficult.”

What are your favorite creative crosswalk signs? Tell us about them.



In a worldwide research conducted by market research firm Ipsos this year, a majority of respondents agreed that increased use of bicycles can help lower carbon emissions and reduce congestion. They also said they would be in favor of giving bicycles priority over cars in new infrastructure projects.


A cyclist rides through the center of The Hague, Netherlands | Aitor Hernandez-Morales

But more than half of respondents added that cycling in their neighborhood is “too dangerous,” limiting their ability to use bicycles.

Our question for you this week: Do safety issues affect your willingness to hop on your bike? And what can be done to make it safer? Write us here.


— City AM has a interesting article of the London plan to bring houses back into state ownership. The main idea is to increase the supply of social housing in the capital by buying housing that can be converted into affordable housing.


Trees on the Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower | Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

— This love letter to the trees of Paris in the New York Times is wonderful to read.

— A satirical headline by the onion made me cry with laughter.

THANKS TO: Giovanna Coic, Saim Saeed, my editors Esther King and Sanya Khetani Shahoand my producer Giulia Poloni.

POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab is a collaborative journalism project that seeks solutions to the challenges facing modern societies at a time of rapid change. In the coming months, we will be organizing a discussion about how we can make cities more liveable and sustainable.

More from … Aitor Hernández-Morales

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