To see the limitations of the European Green Deal first hand, hop on a bike and cycle from Brussels to the historic city of Leuven, some 30 kilometers to the east.
To meet its 2050 climate neutrality goal, the EU will have to, among other things, free city streets of emissions-spewing vehicles to make way for cleaner types of transportation. Some municipalities, like Brussels, will find that a steep challenge. For others, like Leuven, the road will be smoother — but not without obstacles.
In Brussels, a city of 1.2 million, the confusion manifests on the streets. In the EU capital, cohesive planning has proved difficult. Decisions about mobility must be negotiated between the region and 19 communes with overlapping political priorities. We crossed five local government jurisdictions just trying to get out of the capital. Each had differing cycle infrastructure and few real checks on congestion.
Once free from Brussels, it takes about an hour to get to Leuven along a bicycle highway that winds along a railroad track, by single-family homes and past fragrant fields of horses and cows. Whizzing downhill into the city center, the silence is striking as traffic noise drops away.
In recent years, Leuven has been the scene of a two-wheeled revolution. The city is divided into six sectors; cars aren’t allowed to cross between them, and instead are pushed out to a ring road. It makes running local errands in a private car time-consuming and inconvenient.
The scheme is the brainchild of mobility expert Tim Asperges, who was hired six years ago to address a worsening congestion problem. Wearing sensible shoes, he joined us to show off his work, peddling past bike schools, pedestrianized streets and spiraling multistory bike ramps. “I am convinced it really can work everywhere,” he said.
The thing is, it almost didn’t work in Leuven. Wealthy, mid-sized cities such as Leuven — population 100,000 — are ideally suited for the green transition. But Asperges’ transformation almost collapsed before it even began.
When his proposals were introduced, they drew considerable opposition — mainly from merchants who feared kicking cars out of the center would affect their bottom line. When council members’ support started wavering, Asperges was convinced a year’s work was doomed.
In stepped Leuven’s Mayor Louis Tobback, a former Belgian interior minister who governed the Flemish city between 1995 and 2018. According to Asperges, Tobback pulled wavering council members into a room, banged the table and told them the scheme must be approved. “He was one of these really powerful figures who could use their political capital to get things done,” he said.
Change then came quickly. Within a year of implementing Asperges’ plan, cycling increased by 32 percent, and since then car traffic has dropped by nearly one-fifth in the urban center. The train station is surrounded by garages for 5,200 bicycles. Those are full. A major building site next door will create space for 4,000 more.
As the EU tries to cut transport emissions around the bloc, much will depend on whether cities like Brussels will follow Leuven’s example, or even be able to.
In 2018, local elections in Brussels put Green politicians into the majority of the 19 communes’ mobility positions. Bart Dhondt, the city’s alderman of mobility and public works, explained that while some COVID-related measures to slow down traffic and remove cars from the city center have been adopted, the Belgian capital’s car-centric citizenry and shopkeepers remain skeptical of larger-scale changes.
“Mobility is a very touchy subject right now,” said Dhondt. The alderman added that he appreciated that the EU’s Green Deal “gives voice to the dream of a greener urban future,” but said, “it would be nice if there were also funds set aside for these investments, for greening cities.”
A Commission proposal to create 100 climate neutral cities across Europe by 2030 estimates it would cost around €10,000 per citizen to rid cities of most of their emissions — around €1 billion for Leuven and €25 billion for Brussels. The “overwhelming part” of this will not come from the EU, the report said, but from the private sector and local, regional and national governments.
Asperges acknowledged Leuven’s wealth, stable industries and climate-conscious university of 65,000 students were crucial to making his plans work. The city demands public works from developers in exchange for planning permission — and they readily pay. “Money has never been a problem,” he said.
Other cities won’t be so lucky, and Asperges warned that getting funding from the EU takes “a lot of energy.”
“Europe is there, but it’s also far away,” said Asperges, wheeling his bike back to the municipal office block where he works.