Don’t worry … Brussels will remain the most congested city of the world for a long time!

The capital Brussels is listed among many statistics as the most congested cities of the world. According to the annual INRIX Traffic Scorecard, drivers in Brussels face the worst traffic jams in the world. One can think we never thought about solving this painful situation, but the complexity goes far beyond using good common sense. So, which are the different options that would help to improve the current situation and why are they still not implemented? Let me share with you ten ideas and my thoughts about why they don’t work:


Me, commuting since 1995

1. The first idea to reduce congestion is the implementation of congestion charges by registration of cars entering the city using number plate recognition at the entry points of the city. Unfortunate the majority of the congestion is in the suburbs and larger entry roads of Brussels Capital. Other cities like Stockholm, Singapore, London have implemented such solution to tackle the congestion in the city center. Brussels has a different geographical situation with a huge number of large and small congested roads accessing the city, this would require a massive amounts of cameras, in the center and the suburbs. Of course, that’s a practical issue that can be overcome. Probably more important is the financial impact of this potential approach. Brussels and the international airport Zaventem are both surrounded by the Flemish region. So, the suburbs are located in the Flanders region, consequently traffic from the Walloon region to the capital and to the airport would create a flow of money from the south to the north. So, the south would have to pay to reach the capital or the airport? No way!

2. The second idea to reduce congestion would be the implementation of congestion charges using a smart device in the car. Of course, this approach would have the same financial flow as in the first idea. Additionally, the solution has been trialed many times which revealed that the solution is not a 100% accurate and therefore not acceptable as a base for accurate taxation. A common example is a car driving out from a deep underground garage, in such case the GPS signal might be delayed and consequently a part of the journey is not registered a 100% accurately.

3. A third idea to reduce congestion, in particular on the entry roads to the capital, is to penalize trucks from using the road by implementing toll collect for trucks. This approach is in contradiction with how Belgium has been positioned in the past. With its central location and good connections to the rest of Europe the country was positioned as the ideal logistical hub for business. A toll collect for trucks would heavily impact the activities in the port of Antwerp. Sea traffic would divert immediately to Rotterdam leaving Antwerp behind with an economic disaster. On top, the truck traffic from and to Antwerp is for a large extend going East towards the Ruhr area via Liège and going South via the E411. A toll collect for trucks would imply that traffic from and to Antwerp generate an income for the Walloon region. No way!

4. A fourth idea to reduce congestion is the introduction of a toll vignette. This would probably be the easiest and fasted way to implement a road usage charge and to collect budget for infrastructure improvement works. Though it exists in Austria, the European Commission is getting worried that each EU member state would do the same, which is a bit against the free movement policy and additionally which would mean we end up with a windshield full of vignettes.

5. A fifth idea to reduce congestion is to shift traffic to public transport. As a majority of the traffic comes from commuting people to the capital region this would require an improvement of the pre-city public transport. It would indeed be a great idea to boost the investments in the pre-city public transport, it’s proven in many other larger cities. Unfortunate, the public transport in Brussels capital is the responsibility of the STIB and in Flanders (around Brussels) the responsibility of De Lijn. Extending the connections and integrating the offerings into a seamless service is not a given. A nice example is the new tramway north to Evere. This tramway connects the centrum up north towards the NATO headquarters, but stops just at the border of the ring, and this just a few hundred meters short to have a direct connection with the international airport or a few hundred meters short to have a connection with the Evere railway station.

6. A sixth idea to reduce congestion is to increase taxes or start tweaking at the company car policies. Unfortunately, not easy neither. Belgium is already among the top highest tax paying countries. Increasing taxes would even further discourage foreign investors to do business in Belgium and consequently put the country behind in an already difficult situation. Fact is that Belgians have on average a long commute distance to work, which is again caused by tax policy. Relocating to a new house when changing jobs is expensive due to the high taxation on house sale/purchase, in particular when moving between the three regions, consequently people don’t move and accept longer commute distances and time. So, touching the taxes is a very complex and a very difficult option, and people remain to commute to work and won’t change the habit on when or where to drive as the journey has to be made anyway.

7. A seventh idea to reduce congestion on the highways and ring around Brussels would be a special lanes for cars with 2 people or more. It’s sounds easy and a typical American solution but showed unsuccessful in Belgium. Two or three lane roads are too narrow for this approach. Also, there are many entry/exits on a short distance creating a lot of left to right and right to left traffic. And keep in mind, Belgians are very creative, people have put a real size doll on the passenger seat to avoid penalties.

8. An eight idea to reduce congestion could be found on a government level. Brussels hosts many parliaments and governmental institutions. The government might find a solution by itself, for example moving governmental institutions out of Brussels and having a decentralized government. I haven’t made the math, but I guess it could reduce the traffic to level positively impact the congestion situation. Brussels being a political fireplace, each government remains to occupy space in Brussels.

9. A ninth idea to reduce congestion, but in a lesser extend impacting Brussels, would be to shift freight transport from trucks to railroad. Antwerp plays an important role, in particular the transport of freight from and to the Ruhr area in Germany. An existing railroad ‘Iron Rhine’ was closed in 1972 after a 99 year lease expired. Though the line re-opened partially for a very limited number of trains in 2007 there is a strong resistance against the use of it. Let’s be honest, the Dutch government doesn’t need and probably doesn’t want to re-open the line to its full potential as any cargo going to the port of Antwerp is a missed opportunity for the port of Rotterdam.

10. A tenth idea to reduce congestion, but in a very lesser extend impacting Brussels, would be to shift freight transport from trucks to river vessels. Here also Antwerp plays an important role and Flanders made an important decision in the past. The French are digging the ‘Seine-North’ canal to enable supply to Paris by vessel through alternative harbors then Le Havre. The new canal will connect Paris with the Northern harbors, including the port of Antwerp. Nowadays, works are carried out to connect the river Schelde with the new canal via the ‘afleidingskanaal’ of the Leie to support vessels up to 4400 metric tons. Luckily the project can be realized without any regional disputes, as the canal is entirely located on Flanders territory! On the other side, a missed opportunity for the industry along the Schelde in the Walloon region.

From all of the above, there is no long term strategy and none of different governments step up and make decisions going far beyond their legislature and comfort zone. Brussels capital is the headquarters of the European Commission and is being flooded by people from all over the world. Maybe it’s getting time to accept that Brussels no longer a true Belgian city. Why not start thinking totally different and make Brussels capital at the longer term the true capital of the European Union?

Oh, and not to forget about traffic problems: let’s start to think big about the international airport. The airport is point of discussion since decades due to sound pollution. So, let’s build a new 24h/24h airport off-shore like many cities in the Far East have done. A high speed maglev connection from the shore to downtown Brussels would making the airport a few minutes ride away. A solid train connection to the port of Antwerp would integrate air-sea freight.