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Brussels battles road rage

by editor

The Belgian capital’s efforts to clean up its car-clogged roads have set off a turf war between cyclists and motorists — and it’s turned ugly.

In the early days of the pandemic last year, the Brussels government drafted a raft of measures to curb traffic in the city, including plans to quickly roll out new cycle paths once the first lockdown lifted.

The idea was to capitalize on Brusseleirs’ renewed appetite for cycling and create more space for open-air commutes. What the authorities didn’t reckon with was the level of hostility those plans sparked among motorists, who claim the changes constitute an assault on the car.

Similar battles are taking place across Europe as local governments look to limit emissions and make roads more bike-friendly. In Berlin, the hasty construction of new cycle lanes was challenged in court last year and driver lobbies in some places are even demanding that bikes get license plates.

But the fight is especially vicious in traffic-heavy Brussels, with allegations of death threats on social media and of thumbtacks scattered along popular cycle routes.

It’s partly due to a Belgian mindset that you’re either a motorist or a cyclist, says Brussels Mobility Minister Elke Van den Brandt, who is scrambling to lower the temperature on both sides.

“The cyclist is a motorist’s closest ally,” Van den Brandt argued in an interview. “Because anyone who cycles past you is someone not standing in front of you or behind you in a traffic jam; they’re not looking to take up the same parking spot.”

That logic doesn’t convince Lucien Beckers, the 74-year-old leader of Mauto Défense, a drivers’ association that unites some of the loudest critics of Van den Brandt’s measures. 

“The pandemic has been an excellent excuse to impose these rules without asking anyone for their opinion, and that’s honestly unbearable,” he said. “They managed to turn people who use soft mobility against motorists and vice-versa.”


Like in other European cities, the pandemic caused a major bike boom in Brussels, which saw a 64 percent jump in cyclist numbers. The challenge, according to Van den Brandt, is to “keep all those new cyclists on their bikes and to, little by little, change the idea that Brussels is no city for cycling.”

To do so, the government is working to replace temporary bike lanes, hastily built last year with concrete blocks and paint, with permanent infrastructure. It also rolled out a general 30 kilometer per hour speed limit for cars, taken steps to cut car traffic in one of Brussels’ largest parks, the Bois de la Cambre, and is drawing up plans for an urban road toll.

Each of these measures has been met with protests. According to Van den Brandt, moves to boost cycling in the city stir up far more controversy than investment in public transport or road upgrades.

The decision to convert a car lane into a cycling path on Rue de la Loi — a key entry point into the Belgian capital that cuts across its EU district — faced particularly stiff opposition, including from the Flemish nationalists, who slammed the Brussels government over the move.

“It was as if we’d closed off the whole of Brussels, but we went from four to three car lanes. It wasn’t that radical,” Van den Brandt said. The bike lane, which runs past the EU institutions into the city center, is now one of the most used in the city, she added.

A large part of the blowback is coming on social media. In the Facebook group “L’automobiliste en a marre!” (“The driver is fed up!”), some 40,700 motorists vent their frustration against what Mauto Défense’s Beckers, one of the group’s moderators, calls “autophobia.”

Beckers, whose sister was a Belgian race car driver, claims local authorities want to malign the car. Policies like new cycle lanes and the lower speed limit prove the Brussels government is only listening to a tiny green minority and wants to “hamper motorists as much as possible,” he said.

Van den Brandt said the speed limit was preceded by a year-long consultation and got the green light from all Brussels municipalities — a rare thing in the Belgian capital, she remarked. 

One protest drew 150 motorists to complain about the speed restriction, but at the same time 1,500 cyclists gathered to call for more action, she pointed out: “[Those motorists] are there, and I don’t want to ignore them, but I also see those 1,500 cyclists.”

The minister said she regularly consults with mobility groups representing both cyclists and motorists — but not with those who use “intimidating” tactics. “If there can be all kinds of intimidation and threats on a forum, for me, the conversation with that partner ends there,” she said.

Last year, Van den Brandt announced she’d filed a complaint over death threats posted in Beckers’ group. Members also target Brussels citizens campaigning for traffic safety, she said, noting that the tone of the debate has become harsher.

“It really went wrong on Facebook and the social networks because the members of this [Mauto Défense] association were super violent and super threatening,” said Geoffrey Usé, president of the cyclist association GRACQ.

Beckers said he is “extremely careful on Facebook” and has been called in to see police for “ordinary” messages. He also said he and his family have received “quasi-mafia-style” threats from Twitter users.

Old habits

Tensions hit a high point last year when city authorities moved to close a road running through Bois de la Cambre, one of Brussels’ largest parks and a gateway into the city for drivers coming from the south. 

For Usé, who lives in the Ixelles district, the closure of Bois de la Cambre was a significant improvement for anyone living around the park. “I think it’s going to open the discussions for other green spaces in Brussels,” he said.

But the administration of the leafy neighboring residential district of Uccle lodged a legal complaint against the city, arguing the measures redirected traffic onto its streets.

“There needs to be an equilibrium and sending pollution toward people is not a serious environmental measure, on the contrary,” said Boris Dilliès, mayor of the Uccle district.

The Uccle authorities won, and the park is now partially reopened to cars — a compromise solution Van den Brandt said is still in a test phase as it’s tricky to evaluate during the pandemic. The government is still expecting a ruling on its appeal, but that’s mostly to settle questions on Brussels’ complex web of competences, she said.

To Van den Brandt, the ongoing fight is about “reclaiming the city.” And it seems to be one most residents support.

According to a poll conducted by the VIAS institute, nearly two-thirds of Belgians are in favor of creating more space for pedestrians and cyclists — something that also tackles Brussels’ air pollution problem. Some 17 percent oppose the measures.

Belgium is also one of nine EU countries calling on the European Commission to set a phaseout target for gasoline and diesel cars. A survey by YouGov published earlier this week said 56 percent of respondents in Brussels were in favor of a polluting car ban after 2030.

Still, old habits die hard — and some of Brussels’ motorists aren’t keen to bid farewell to the car, or to relinquish road space to cyclists and green activists.

“There is a minority that is active, very active — we know who they are,” said Beckers. “It’s all those who want to make the city greener, who want to turn the city into the countryside. But a city remains a city and the countryside remains the countryside.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Mobility. From the digitization of the automotive sector to aviation policy, logistics and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Mobility policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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