It has been congestion week for me. A celebration of traffic management failure.
Last week I was inspired by the thought that Copenhagen has so many cyclists they suffer traffic jams and road rage.
I have spent much of the past two weeks discussing congestion too. The EU is currently accepting pitches for its research budgets and included in the offer is some substantial funding to address the congestion that is slowly paralysing many cities and roads throughout the union.
I am involved because one of the approaches that needs validating is the effect of more cycling and walking on congestion. We are working with some partners to prepare better evidence to stop politicians panicking every time a local lobby says cycling facilities and pedestrianized city centres cause congestion.
So we have been locked in rooms having some really interesting discussions with cities about their commitment to their transport problems and in general it has been quite refreshing, because of course the people we are sitting with are the enthusiastic partners.
However for those of us based in Brussels it has also been congestion week for another reason. Just a few days ago the trial of a “kilometre tax” was announced which will test the effect of charging 1200 drivers for the distance they travel in Brussels. Something is needed because the city and its surroundings regularly feature in the lists of Europe’s most congested cities and is getting steadily worse. I was watching an item from Brussels on the BBC News that just about sums it up. They have one of those back projections behind the reporter that supposedly shows a typical city skyline. The Brussels one always shows just a huge queue of traffic gridlocked around the EU district from morning till night.
However there has only been one noise louder than the traffic this week. That is the sound of politicians of all parties running as far as possible from the congestion charge. And in Belgium that is a hell of a lot of politicians. To start with there are at least 12 parties but they are then divided up into the Federal Government and the regional parliaments for Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. Guess what, there are elections coming up so they are all dashing furiously for cover, much to the disappointment of anyone who hoped that this might be a start in the right direction. Apparently the possible trial was buried in the small print of a proposal to try and ease freight congestion, but now the politicians have left the Minister for Mobility in Brussels region to carry the can as they say “no we didn’t mean that”. Astonishingly even the Greens (Ecolo) (*see comments) have distanced themselves because “the measure might adversely affect people on low incomes”. All this goes against a backdrop of every previous failed initiative such as sensible stuff like reducing parking or madness like the short-lived Flemish proposal to add more lanes to part the Ring motorway. They never head the expression “Building roads to ease congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity”. It is just madness.
So where does all this fit into my cycling blog?
Brussels cycling has apparently quadrupled from 1% of traffic to about 4%. City officials are patting themselves on the back because they have put in a very few cycle lanes and quite a bit of paint on the roads, but mainly they have been completely blocked by the politics of the region and the fiefdoms of 17 commune mayors who regard the loss of a single parking spot as an act of treachery from outside.
So why the growth? Because if you make everything else bad enough people will ride bikes. Despite the fact that the cars slow the bikes far more than the bikes block the cars and the white paint on the roads is frankly useless it is still quicker and easier to get around much of our part of Brussels by bike than anything else. And for people who have to make multiple stops like dropping off kids on the way to work the parking congestion makes the bike an even bigger winner.
So here we all are in Brussels – the congestion busters. Up the outside of the parked cars, up the pavements and even occasionally squeezed into the cycle paths. Sadly when we look at our research into congestion I am sure we will find once again that the number of people prepared to try cycling like this is limited to about 5% of the population, the rest are just too scared. So the Brussels cycling boom has just about reached its limit until somebody has the political clout to impose themselves on the driving congestion. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Copenhagen we are not. It really is not a solution. But those of us who are riding will not despair when the politicians fail us.